The first section of Pollan’s book was a read that I just couldn’t put down. His tenacity in his approach to his mission and commitment to relaying accurate and scientifically founded information just isn’t something that you come across as often as you would hope. This book, so far, has already began making me question my eating choices and what I could do differently to be healthier and clean up my ecological footprint.
Recently, my wife and I did the Whole30 diet, cutting out added sugars, grains, flour, and virtually everything that wasn’t meat, fruit, and veggies for a 30 day period. It was challenging for the first week as our bodies went through sugar withdrawal, but it got easier over time. Since we finished, we’ve continued to eat mostly whole, natural foods and have drastically reduced the amount of processed foods we consume. Since we aren’t perfect though, we have gone back to the occasional fast food outing or junk food trip to the gas station. I tell you this because going on that diet, going grocery shopping, walking the aisles, you discover how much of our diet is, well, not whole. Not just that, but just the sheer amount of the grocery store which is basically a variation of one particular plant: corn.
Naturally, humans, and all other animals for that matter, are adapted to seek out the most amount of calories in a way that uses the least amount of energy. For us, those food are sweet. After all, sweet signifies calories, calories equal energy, and energy equals survival. But in a world where calories are cheaper than ever, corn makes up everything, and high-fructose corn-syrup is the sweetener of choice by pretty much all companies, this evolutionary adaptation that is supposed to be beneficial is aiding and abetting our societal ailments. We are a nation of gluttons, and where else is this more evident than in our love for fast, cheap, food.
Michael Pollan begins his book with a simple yet gnawingly complex question that we all face, “What should we have for dinner?” It is Pollan’s mission to not just answer that question, but to uncover just why that seemingly simple question has become so weighted and divisive. He starts with a diagnosis. “Our national eating disorder”, he calls it. He recalls the “carbophobia” panic that began with the Atkin’s Diet in 2002, the stark contrast of the view held for the last 30 years that fat made you fat, and the absurdity of needing investigative journalist to tell you what was safe or unsafe to eat, healthy or unhealthy, despite thousands of years of evolution guiding us to know these things instinctually. How did we get here? Well, it seems as though there are three culprits; our omnivorous nature, lack of a true embedded American food culture, and endless options at the supermarket. Does Pollan think that he has the answer? No, but what he does have is an understanding and it is that education and knowledge that he hopes will enable us to make better choices.
Pollan begins the journey of the first meal with the king of American agriculture: Zea mays. Corn is in virtually everything we consume. In fact, corn is, practically, everything. As Pollan so perfectly words it, “Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature…the eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.” Pollan’s point here is that essentially everything you find in the American food chain leads back to corn, from the waxy coating on your apple to virtually every part of a Chicken McNugget. After an incredibly in-depth and fascinating breakdown on the biologic history of the seemingly simple Zea mays, how its traits combined with being in the right place at the right time led to its exhaltation in agriculture, and an interesting thought piece on who domesticated whom, we are led to a familiar place: the Midwest.
We journey to the average American farm in Iowa, where we are introduced to a man named George Naylor, to learn the ins-and-outs of corn farming. Naylor’s farm wasn’t always devoted to the produce king and its counterpart, the soybean. Originally, the farm grew various fruits and vegetables and even had animal, but now it is just a small piece in the enormous machine that is industrial agriculture. Naylor introduces us to the unfortunate and paradoxical economic plight of the American farmer and the issues that come with trusting companies like Cargill and Monsanto. He makes clear his distrust for GMO seeds which promise to increase yield and make you more money, which have such high cost and associated fee’s that you end up losing money using them. We quickly learn that farmers are subject to forcing their own downfall by increasing yield to sell more corn, yet at the same time, flooding the market and driving the price of corn down, which in turn requires another yield increase to cover the financial loss−a constantly spinning cycle. It is this flooding of the market which keeps corn prices so low and encourages its incorporation to all aspects of agriculture and life. Whether it’s fed to livestock or fed to your car in the form of ethanol. This is largely due to saturation of the market, but that itself is largely due to Earl Butz and his dismantling of New Deal subsidy programs which had dire consequences for the agricultural industry. Now, corn is cheap and it is everywhere. America is drowning in corn.
Pollan goes on to bring to light another plight of American agriculture, the sterilization of American soil and the need for artificial fertilizers as well as the need for large amounts of pesticides to protect the vast monocultures. The problem with artificial fertilizers lies in the immense amount of fossil fuels required to create them, and the vast amounts of pollution via greenhouse gasses, eutrophication, and more, that its overuse causes. It’s actually this point where it becomes clear that no longer is corn fed by the sun and soil before being fed to everything else, but it is being fed by petroleum, and thus, we are being fed by petroleum.
On to the grain elevator where Pollan disturbingly describes a yellow pyramid of corn, and corn wasted, scattered across the lot, embedded in the mud. It’s here that he realizes that it is impossible for him to follow just one bushel of corn, or any of the corn for that matter, to its end destination as it is loaded into miles of train cars. That and Cargill and ADM will not allow him into their processing facilities. Pollan estimates that those two companies, who are privately owned and endlessly wealthy with unknowable political influence, buy about a third of all corn produced in the US. Now, we journey to the feedlot.
Pollan bought a young steer named 534 in South Dakota, where it spent a very brief time in pasture, feeding on grass. Pollan provides a wonderful piece on the amazing co-evolution of ruminants and grass before explaining how 534, and most all other cows, are transitioned to a diet consisting entirely of corn in a display that industrial efficiency and thinking are throwing evolutionary logic out the window in what some would describe as a “triumph”, all in the name of efficiency. In pure Pollan fashion, he put it like this: “Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us— at considerable cost to their health, the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters — to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed.” From there, Pollan and his steer make their way to a “cattle metropolis”, Poky Feeders, a massive factory farm in Kansas. His tour of this place located in Garden City, Kansas, unveils a “pre-modern” city “teeming and filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads, and choking air rendered visible by dust.” He explains how the incredible overuses of antibiotics in the industry are due to these conditions. Without them, disease would surely spread like wildfire and there is no telling what the effect would be on the human population. He also brings to light how a majority of the health problems that occur in the cows is traced directly back to their forced diet of corn and that if they were to remain on that diet for any longer than the time it takes for to raise them to slaughter, they would surely die of health complications.
After the incredibly disturbing Poky Farms visit, Pollan moves on to follow corn through its processing into virtually everything else you can find in the supermarket. It’s here that he “applauds” the feat of engineering by companies like General Mills, where they have somehow managed to create product after product from by combining the processed bits of corn into unrecognizable shapes, colors, and flavors. He also points out the absurdity of companies marketing things enriched, considering they stripped all of the natural nutrition out of a food, broke it down, reassembled it, added vitamins, and now market it almost as being better for you than the original food itself.
Fast food surely owes its rise to the rise of corn. Fast food relies on cheap sources and the industry rocketed during the great corn market flood that started in the 70’s and hasn’t stopped since. Cheap corn equals cheap meat, cheap sugar, cheap everything the fast food industry uses. Your burger is corn, your ketchup is corn, your soda is corn, it is all corn. The Chicken McNugget, Pollan’s first meal, is the perfect example of this reality, with its 38 ingredients being primarily derived from corn. In fact, Pollan’s whole family ate at McDonalds that day, all of their meal owing its existence to King Corn.
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