Pollan M. 2007. Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Books. 15- 119 p.
Corn. Corn. Corn
This blog post, I can promise you, is going to be all about corn. Although that comes across as a simple idea, I can also assure you that you are going to be surprised about how much we can talk about corn.
Like I’m sure many of you are thinking now, I didn’t think reading over a hundred pages about corn would be all that exciting, but as I dove into “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, written by Michael Pollen, I quickly found myself enthralled. Each chapter of this book is subdivided into sections covering a wide variety of topics such as the origin of corn, the abundance of corn in society today, the production of corn, the urbanization of corn, the endless uses of corn, the contribution of corn to human obesity today, industrialization of corn and many other corn related topics.
Are you sick of reading the word ‘corn’ yet?
This book opened my eyes as to how many aspects of society depend on the production of corn. On a simple level, we can assume that corn is produced to supply the population with a reliable source of food. However, on another level, we must consider corn’s contribution to the feed of animals, to the edible products of processed corn, to the economy, to the countless non-edible food items ranging from toothpaste to batteries, to obesity of humans and many other aspects of life today. This book provides insight and answers into the vast history of corn and how it went from a simple grain plant to the most highly grown and demanded crop of human civilization.
Michael Pollen took me on a rollercoaster of emotions while reading the first seven chapter of his book. He managed to get me excited about corn, curious about it’s contributions, and sympathetic towards farmers. He mad me feel sad for the manipulated animals, scared about the health of humans, and appalled by government strategies. I was disgusted by humans’ desire for money, horrified by the overproduction and consumption of food, and finally, hungry for McDonald’s. I was fascinated how quickly I went from being absolutely repulsed about the treatment of cattle and wanting to go back to my previous vegetarian lifestyle, to being delighted by the description of a McDonald’s meal and craving a cheeseburger like I hadn’t eaten in days. It was an intriguing and thrilling adventure that I would gladly recommend to anybody.
The only thing I didn’t enjoy about this book had not to do with Michael Pollen’s writing, but with the negative aspects of civilization he was bring to light. Although he wrote nothing but the truth with research and facts, I found myself feeling weary about what was going on in the world around me. I am warning you now that you are about to embark on a long section filled with sad and shocking facts about our everyday society.
In the second chapter, Pollen analyzes the use of fertilizers and pesticides and the ramifications of their uses. “The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, ‘We’re still eating the leftovers of World Was II’.” (page 41) I have never read a phrase that made me as abhorred as this sentence made me. Not only is the government using past death machines for their benefit, but they’re using them to spread chemicals that are eventually harming humans, animals, and the environment. Later on in this chapter, Pollen mentions The New Deal that the government had established in order to stabilize corn prices and benefit corn farmers, and for a moment my faith in humanity had been restored. Yet, as quickly as it was renewed, my faith was crushed yet again by Earl Butz and his money-grabbing and corn-hoarding direct payments. “But made no secret of his agenda: He exhorted farmers to plant their fields fencerow to fencerow’ and advised them the ‘get big or get out’.” (page 52)
Chapter four made me realize the tragedy that is the life of cattle destined to be hamburgers. I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘wait, cows don’t eat corn and she promised this post was going to be all about corn!’ Well that’s precisely the issue. Not only are cattle treated with no respect, shoved into small, dirty and crowded living quarters, but they are forced to survive short lives on the cheapest food source that their physiology is not meant to digest. “Corn found its way into the diet of animals that never used to eat very much of it (like cattle) or any corn at all, like the farmed salmon now being bred to tolerate grain. All that excess biomass has to go somewhere.” (page 67) Growing up in an environment like that, maybe it’s lucky that they are slaughtered after fourteen to sixteen months. “Fast food, indeed.” (page 71)
It’s pretty easy to feel bad about a cow’s life, but then get over it two minutes later and eat a burger. However, when the cow’s lifestyle has a direct effect on your health, it might be a little more difficult to forget. So please allow me to inform you. Not only were cows being force-fed corn, liquefied-fat, protein supplements made of molasses and urea, antibiotics, but also cow parts. In 1997, they abolished the feeding of cow parts to cattle because of the outbreak of mad cow disease in humans. However, this hasn’t stopped the risk of disease transmission to humans today entirely. “Feather meal and chicken litter (that is, bedding, feces, and other discarded bits of feed) are accepted cattle feeds, as are chicken, fish, and pig meal. Some public health experts worry that since the bovine meat and bonemeal that cows used to eat is now being fed to chickens, pigs, and fish, infectious prions could fine their way back into cattle when they’re fed the protein of the animals that have been eating them.” (page 76). If we are was we eat, then we are much more than a cow. We are a cow, a pig, a fish, a chicken. We are animal feces and unwanted parts. We are antibiotics, molasses, urea, and liquefied-fat. Most of all though, we are corn.
Chapter six dives into the problem of obesity in society today. I was well aware of the food epidemic resulting in an overweight population, but I was less conscious of the government’s role in our chunky civilization. “While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” (page 108)
Alongside this, I want to mention the toxins and chemicals that the FDA has approved to be added to our everyday food. Dimethylpolysiloxene is an anti-foaming agent that is also “… a suspected carcinogen and an established, mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it’s also flammable.” (page 113) Tertiary butylhydroquinone is used to preserve chicken nuggets. However, it is made from petroleum and is a form of butane. “…Ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause ‘nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.’ Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.” (page 114) Furthermore, how appetizing does sodium aluminium phosphate, mono calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate sound? Probably not very tasty yet they can all be found in a chicken nugget. One last fun fact about chicken nuggets, while we are talking about them. Do you know how much of a chicken nugget is actually made of corn? A LOT. “…What chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of a nugget’s other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden colouring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget ‘fresh’ can all be derived from corn.” (page 18) So we should probably just start calling them corn nuggets.
Congratulations, you made it through the super sad section of my blog. No where but up from here. Looking back, I’ve just written a very long section of all the negative aspects of our corn infested society that Michael Pollen brought up, but corn is not all bad, and is actually a huge contributor to the massive rate of growth of humans. Without corn, many people today would not exist. If corn were to suddenly disappear, so would a lot of the human race.
Michael Pollen does an excellent job of taking a fairly simple topic and transforming it into a page-turner of a book. His excellent use of characters such as George Naylor, his family, steer 534, and Earl Butz allows for a more interesting and compelling story. He also introduced well-known corporations such as Tyson, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Cargill and ADM which allowed me to make more connections. This also made the story more personal, knowing these industries surround me everyday. My favourite part of this book was a simple pun that made me burst into laughter in the middle of a busy campus building at Thompson Rivers University. “What remains in the slurry is ‘saccharified’-…” (page 89) Even typing it out now, I can’t get over how clever that is. That may make me sounds like a nerd but I can’t help myself. It really is funny.
Although I only read the first seven chapters of this book, I found Michael Pollen did an excellent job of covering a wide range of corn related topics, all the way from the farm to the plate and everywhere in between. After finishing these readings, I went home where I enjoyed a home cooked meal of freshly caught local salmon and trout, steamed broccoli, and canned-corn. As I graciously stuffed my mouth full of the sweet kernels, I was able to fully appreciate the story of corn.