Michael Pollan on The Cornification of America

| April 14, 2006 | 9 Comments
  • 9 Comments

On Wednesday, April 5, Michael Pollan gave what was to be the last talk in an eight-week lecture series called “Food Politics” at UC Berkeley. Marion Nestle organized the incredible series, which hosted varied voices from a broad spectrum of those actively speaking, writing, and teaching within this new hot topic. A visiting professor in the Schools of Public Policy, Public Health, and Journalism, Ms. Nestle herself is a loud and learned voice in a movement heard mostly with grassroots-style activism. She is concerned with the not so easy questions about how we eat, how to make educated intentional choices, and how to best “Vote With Our Forks.”

I have seen and heard Michael Pollan speak before. He is dynamic, funny, and astute. A prolific writer of books and articles, he’s the investigative reporter we want all our newspapers to be full of. Muckrakers or truth seekers, that’s for us to decide.

Wednesday’s lecture had one purpose and subject. To inform us all about what he aptly calls “The Cornification of America.” What our nation is doing and has historically decided to do with our gratuitous over-production of corn.

First Mr. Pollan tells us that he writes about food from a perspective we all share: consumer. To prove this point further, he begins putting out a small sampling of foodstuffs from a nearby Safeway for a little show & tell. “After a great deal of detective work,” he says easily, “you end up in a cornfield in Iowa over and over.”

Giving us a little background, Mr. Pollan shares the “history of the Americas through the eyes of the corn plant.” Ironically, he points out, “The food plant of the conquered peoples conquers the conquerers.” Currently, in the United States, corn is grown on acreage of almost equivalent size to that of New York State. A plant adaptive to many a climate and geography, Mr. Pollan points out that corn is “a perfect capitalist plant.” With all that corn hungrily and greedily consumes — from the dirt it grows in to the pesticides and fertilizer it needs to grow (more than any other crop!) — he adds, “corn is the SUV of plants.” “Corn, as a plant, is completely dependent on humans for germination,” making it the best candidate for chemical agriculture.

Chemical agriculture. A practice made all the better after World War II when the war was over and our government had a surplus of well developed chemical warfare agents and explosives to turn into the most deadly pesticides and fungicides — all but a few still used today. It’s illegal to use DDT in North America, but we sell it to South America and then import their produce.

Whereas initially forcing crops with low grade poisons was said to be for the purpose of “feeding the world,” overproduction now only leads to larger meal portions, epidemic severe health concerns, and gluts in the market, which financially devastate the few farmers we have left. Farms that were once diverse ecosystems with room for animals, fruits, and vegetables to spread out over many acres in many states are now mammoth mono-crops in just a few vast areas.

Barely remembering my government classes from college, I won’t attempt to re-explain Mr. Pollan’s summary of our government’s originally well-intentioned but ultimately problematic farm subsidy programs. Originally set up to help farmers, the subsidies, Mr. Pollan stressed, now account for the gross surplus of a grain we need very little of.

The question is, what do we as a nation do with all that excess corn?

At one time it was corn liquor. Currently the answer, a sweetener on everyone’s lips, literally: high fructose corn syrup. Another: corn fed to animals whose intestinal tracts do not metabolize corn; large mammal populations, who then need to be actually fed hormones just to stay well enough to go to slaughter. We rely on these animals for sustenance, and they create toxic manure, once a free fertilizer for the small and varied farm, adding to the myriad of environmental (for both people and nature) problems we were initially trying to treat.

Depressing, eh?

During the question and answer period, I thanked Mr. Pollan for doing the kind of investigative journalism I was brought up to think was the only kind of reporting a legman should do. But I asked him, after a lecture filled with so many upsetting facts, did he have anything to leave us with which might be hopeful?

Loathe to participate in what Mr. Pollan called our overwhelming desire to “look for the single answer,” a number of uplifting examples were given on how we are indeed “voting with our fork.” Farmer’s markets are growing by leaps and bounds, Whole Foods Market is the most successful supermarket chain, and more and more people are making well-informed choices about what they’re eating and buying. Addressing Wal-Mart’s interest in entering the Organic marketplace, Mr. Pollan reminded us, “as we scale up, Organic is getting cheaper” and more readily available for Americans located in areas with a paucity of local farms or upscale supermarket chains.

Think Organic and sustainable food is only for the privileged and the rich? Mr. Pollan asserts, “People are willing to make sacrifices for quality– look at how we buy cars.” Statistically, although I alone could disprove this figure, 9% of our income is spent on food. In a country where we pay less for food than almost any other country’s citizens, our cheap food “comes at a cost.”

Ending the lecture he leaves us with “Food is worth spending more on.” And all of us in that classroom leave understanding more fully the implications and feeling the reverberations of this seemingly simple statement. We, carnivores and vegetarians alike, are affected by the hidden costs of a food system groaning under the weight of its own ideals, double-speak, and dumped or rotting excesses. If knowledge is power, our forks just became heavier and louder.

Want to ask some questions yourself? Hear these important voices here:

Food: Michael Pollan unravels “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”
April 17, 7 p.m., Andersen Auditorium, Haas School of Business
website

Marion Nestle
What to Eat: Sensible Food Choices in this Era of Corporate and Scientific Environment
Monday, April 24, 2006 7:00PM
Sibley Auditorium, Bechtel Hall
website

Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H.
What to Eat: Public Health Advice in an Era of Food Confusion
Tuesday, April 25, 2006 4:00PM
22 Warren Hall
website

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About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • lee

    Shuna,
    Thanks for this report. I love Michael Pollan. I fully agree that food is worth spending more money on. I go without many things so that I can afford the best food available to me.

  • Marc

    Great post. A slight expansion: you wrote that cattle are fed “hormones” to allow them to process the corn and grain that they are fed at feedlots. I’m sure that the food has plenty of hormones, but it is actually much worse, as feedlot cattle are provided a regular ration of antibiotics. Cows aren’t evolved to eat corn, so it causes serious digestive problems that antibiotics can partially relieve. Here is what Pollan wrote in his outstanding 2002 piece Power Steer:

    “What keeps a feedlot animal healthy — or healthy enough — are antibiotics. Rumensin inhibits gas production in the rumen, helping to prevent bloat; tylosin reduces the incidence of liver infection. Most of the antibiotics sold in America end up in animal feed — a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged, leads directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant ”superbugs.” In the debate over the use of antibiotics in agriculture, a distinction is usually made between clinical and nonclinical uses. Public-health advocates don’t object to treating sick animals with antibiotics; they just don’t want to see the drugs lose their efficacy because factory farms are feeding them to healthy animals to promote growth. But the use of antibiotics in feedlot cattle confounds this distinction. Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals, yet the animals probably wouldn’t be sick if not for what we feed them.”

  • Brett

    Thank you Shuna for taking notes for those of us who couldn’t make it to Michael Pollan’s talk. Great write up. For readers who are interested in hearing Mr. Pollan interviewed on this topic and others from his new book, listen online to Tuesday’s episode of Fresh Air here.

  • holly landry

    shuna ~

    Very informative and well written, I feel very blessed and honor the responsibility of living in the Bay Area- having access to this type of information and of course the privilage to make good food choices. I only wish the rest of my life choices were this black and white :)

  • cookiecrumb

    Very depressing. I spoke with the wife of a local Bay Area liberal radio personality, she’s a lawyer for food, and I told her I was alarmed about corn.
    “Oh, GMO?” she asked. Nonchalant. Dismissive.
    No! I said. (Idiot!) HFCS! NAFTA issues!

  • Michael Lydon

    Good report, clearly written, on a fascinating subject. Pollan is a fine writer-reporter who sees the whole issue of food in its widest context, from the personal experiences of the individual consumer to the commercial pressures of mega agribusiness. Thanks, Shuna, for spreading his insights to a wide audience.

  • Catherine

    MP is also giving a talk and book signing at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market on May 7th at 11 a.m.

  • shuna fish lydon

    For an extensive list of where to hear this man speak, follow our very own Jennifer maiser’s link:

    http://www.lifebeginsat30.com/jen/2006/04/michael_pollan_.html

    Marc– thanks for the correction. Of course I meant anti-biotics. Although in order to bring cows and pigs to their “slaughter weights” fast they are also fed growth hormones. Really it is just a big mess, all the medicine to just cure how we have intentionally hurt them in the first place.

    Michael Lydon– you are my inspiration as a thorough reporter!

    My hope is that we all find ways to say no to commercial agriculture and factory farming– even if it is just in small brave ways. It’s important to remember that our own small enclave of SF/East bay is not at all representative of most of the state, let alone our vast country.

  • Amy Sherman

    Michael Pollan was on NPR this week and had some very disturbing stories to tell about his experience visiting an organic “cage-free chicken ranch”. Apparently cage-free is not as idylic as one might imagine.