Corn: our friend, our foe, our shadow

Pollan M. 2007. Omnivores Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Books. p. 15- 119.

As I begin to write this blog it is an early Friday night, and I have plans to go out for a friends birthday later. After reading this book I’m feeling particularly turned off of corn. That’s when the thought struck me, what am I going to drink. I could put an ignorant faith that the beer I’ll be drinking doesn’t contain any high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) but my instincts tell me it does. My quick googling skills tell me that most hard alcohols are out (except for rum apparently). So, I guess I’ll be one of two people, the guy drinking wine in the club, or the guy taking straight shots of rum. Please don’t judge. This dilemma reinforces what Pollan says, Corn is everywhere. From our drinks to our condiments and to the feed for our meat you’ll find corn. Without us even realizing, corn has become our staple food. It is nearly unavoidable. It follows us everywhere, just like our shadow.

The premise of Pollan’s book seeks to answer two questions. What am I eating? And where did it come from (p. 17)? Throughout his journey he generally finds two answers, corn and Middle America. As he says, “it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn” (p. 23).

So apparently we really like corn. Should you care? Maybe not. Corn is an easy way to keep food prices down and load that food up with energy (p. 106). If you can avoid overindulging and the negative health effects that it has, that’s a great thing. Unfortunately, there’s so much more to the story. By buying that cheap (albeit tasty) food, you’re also supporting a system that is oppressing farmers in Middle America, contributing to the obesity epidemic and leaving a large ecological footprint. Who knew that Big Mac was so political?

I’ll start with the oppression of American farmers. Back in the depression corn hit an all time low. A bushel of corn was effectively worthless (p. 48). In an attempt to avoid this financial catastrophe one part of the New Deal was when prices were low the government would offer farmers a loan and store their corn. If prices rose, the farmer could return the money and collect his corn, if the prices stayed low the farmer could keep the loan. This helped the farmer in two ways, that corn wouldn’t enter the market, further saturating it, and it provided a safety net in what would be a tough year for the farmer. This program was relatively cheap and very effective in keeping corn prices high (p. 49-50). In the early 1970’s this program drastically changed based on two events. The first was the sale of 30 million tons of American grain to Russia in 1972. The sale also coincided with a historically bad year leading to astronomical grain prices. This drew people back to the family farm as corn was now a viable crop to grow (p. 51). In 1973 these high prices and inflation lead to expensive grain. To compensate for this increase in price, farmers were pressured to increase their output. The New Deal system was also replaced and instead of being a loan program, just bought corn outright from the farmers. This led to farmers selling their corn at any price so when prices were low the market still became saturated, leading to a spiral of oversupply when there wasn’t always demand (p. 52). This is beneficial to the large corporations as they now always have a cheap supply of corn but catastrophic to the small farmer. Now, every bushel of corn costs more than it creates and the shortfall is subsidized by the government. So in short, the farmers of Middle America are forced to sell as much corn as they can to stay afloat, which in turn further saturates the market and drives prices down. In essence, the American government is subsidizing profits of the corporations. These farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy with ruined land, forced to produce as much corn as possible. They’re pigeon-holed. When I read this part of the book I became absolutely infuriated. My political ideology is incredibly anti-corporation and to know that I was helping a system like this made me feel awful.

This surplus of corn leads to our next problem. Obesity in America. With the huge surplus of cheap corn, companies like General Mills and Cargill found innovative things to do with it. Pollan visits the Center for Crops Utilization Research where they are working on new ways to use corn. He also shows us how much corn is already used in the foods we eat with out us even knowing. Maltodextrin, sorbitol, MSG, citric and lactic acid are some examples (p. 86). I did some investigating of my own in my fridge and cupboard and low and behold, every packaged product contained one or more of these ingredients. These foods also happen to be the cheapest. People with limited money (like most of us) will buy these products because they are the cheapest and offer a large neurobiological reward (p. 108). As companies reduced the price per ounce, consumers began eating and drinking more and more of the corn syrup they were selling (p. 105).

Lastly, the ecological footprint of corn. Since farmers are forced to grow so much corn to keep their land, fertilizer and pesticide use is rampant. As George Naylor says, “they say you only need a hundred pounds per acre. I don’t know. I’m putting on closer to 180. You don’t want to err on the side of too little” (p. 46). This fertilizer use has a direct environmental impact as it flows down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico creating huge anoxic dead zones (p. 47). It also burns fossil fuel at an astounding rate. As Pollan estimates it takes around 50 gallons of oil to grow an acre of corn now (p. 45).

So the decision is now up to you. Yes, our current food system provides cheap calories and can support a lot of people, but it’s the same system that’s destroying our land, bodies and supporting the large corporations. In this day we have very little political power. Our most important votes we have left are the ones we make with our dollar every day. Now the next time you go to the supermarket you will know what you are really voting for.



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