Corn Crazy

This week I read the first few chapters of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Pollan M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma. New York (NY): Penguin Group. 450 p.

Having read The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan a couple weeks ago, I was already familiar with his style of writing and expected the book to contain a more playful journey of wading through agricultural information. I feel as though Pollan did an excellent job explaining concepts pertaining to the themes of the book, however it was still difficult for me to read. The first six or so chapters of the book focus on corn, which (from the perspective of a twenty-one year old aspiring nurse) is very difficult to relate to in that much detail. I found that I was very slow to read it and that I became again and again lost in the history of politics and economics that Pollan writes of (which are very important topics, but difficult for a biology major to comprehend). Since I couldn’t quite wrap my head around some of the farming terminology and American history, I found that there was less for me to write about this week. Nonetheless, I did my best to summarize my understandings below.

I definitely did not appreciate or even comprehend the true importance of corn before I read this book (it was very shocking to find out that corn is grown on “125, 000 square miles of the American continent” (Pollan 65)). After I started to realize that the first third of the book was dedicated to the processes involving corn, it finally dawned on me how little I ever thought about this plant or how deeply it was engraved into my life (and consequently into my hair and nails as Carbon-13!).

I enjoyed how Pollan introduced the reader to George Naylor, the small town Iowa corn farmer. I found it more interesting to read the evolution of the American farm home through the Naylor family’s experience rather than just reading arbitrary information. It was very striking how many changes a typical farm home endured in the past century – from having a diverse variety of crops and livestock and employing many people to only growing one or two specific items and having no livestock at all. Pollan also notes the irony corn crops pushing out other crops, then livestock, and eventually even humans for their own ultimate success. I found that a recurring theme Pollan brings up, is the contribution to global warming and pollution that can be traced from growing, processing, and transporting a huge crop like corn. It was very shocking for me to read that “when you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer tot he fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it” (Pollan 45). I remember first learning about the nitrogen cycle in Science 10, and after reading Pollan, I was again reminded of the devastating effects of nitrogen run-off.

Pollan also did a good job of explaining the economics of growing crops such as corn – how it is affecting the farmers and how it is being regulated through politics and government agendas. Again, hearing George Naylor’s perspective helped me to relate more to the issue.

Another theme Pollan touched on, was knowing the origins of food (especially from corn products). This is a topic I have discussed in a previous blog on The 100-Mile Diet, and I had commented that I did not even think about the origins of most of my food – Pollan reminded me of this again, except with all the products of a single plant. He couldn’t have put it better when he stated, “I should have known that tracing any single bushel of commodity corn is as impossible as tracing a bucket of water after it’s been poured into a river” (Pollan 63).

As a biology major, I found Pollan’s description of livestock treatment in modern America to be very interesting. Pollan definitely enfused the chapter with personality, as the reader comes to find that he had bought his own steer to better understand the process of corn as livestock feed. I did not know that cows were being fed corn against their evolutionary instints. Morevover, the diseases that cows can have from this process is astounding; they can’t live very long, they may get bloat, or acidosis, and liver damage. Not to mention the effects this has on humans, as Pollan writes that “a growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef” (Pollan 75). The antibiotic resistance that is accumulating is a threat to the survival of the human population, yet we still gamble this survival for a tasty steak (which then leaves me to question, how different are we from the very animals we mercilessly slaughter?). I was particularly disturbed when Pollan described the undocumented amount of bacteria that resides in manure, and stated that “the speed at which these animals [cows] will be slaughtered and processed – four hundred an hour at the plant where 534 [Pollan’s steer] will go – means that sooner or later some of the manure caked on these hides gets into the meat we eat” (Pollan 82). I was also surprising to note that nearly a barrel of oil goes into feeding and maintaining one cow!!

It was also fascinating to read about Pollan’s visit to General Mills, and the origins of ‘supersizing’ at McDonald’s. I think it was important that Pollan noted that these more energy-dense foods (filled with fat and sugar) are becoming cheaper and that organic and healthier foods are more expensive. Combine that with the disappearing middle class in the United States, and it is easier to see why some families are left no choice but to eat unhealthy foods, which then leads to the diabetes epidemic and causes society to question where money should really be spent (perhaps to boost the middle class and make healthy foods more affordable which will eventually lower the costs of treating diabetes – obviously easier said than done).

Although this may have been a tough read for me, I am glad that I read it. It definitely opened up my eyes to the sheer amount of corn I eat, as well as its many implications in today’s world. Needless to say, I will for sure be cutting down the amount of meat I eat. My mom is a vegetarian and since she usually makes most of our meals, we don’t eat much meat. She always claimed it was because she helped raise two cows when she was a little girl, and was taught the importance of them (as they are regarded as God-like in India). From now on I’m just going to stick to the occasional butter chicken…

 

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