Michael Pollan is, for my money, the best writer we have on the subject of food. He has an ability to see the food systems in which we are emeshed in a clear and critical, yet fair, light. Alternet ran a great interview with him last month, well worth reading:
You've taken a critical look at what you've called "the cornification of America." What do you mean?
In corn, I think I've found the key to the American food chain. ... If you look at a fast-food meal, a McDonald's meal, virtually all the carbon in it and what we eat is mostly carbon comes from corn. A Chicken McNugget is corn upon corn upon corn, beginning with corn-fed chicken all the way through the obscure food additives and the corn starch that holds it together. All the meat at McDonald's is really corn. Chickens have become machines for converting two pounds of corn into one pound of chicken. The beef, too, is from cattle fed corn on feedlots. The main ingredient in the soda is corn high-fructose corn syrup. Go down the list. Even the dressing on the new salads at McDonald's is full of corn.
(Thanks to Bill Cronon for sending this)
What does this do to the land?
Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you. When you're growing corn in that kind of intensive monoculture, it requires more pesticide and more fertilizer than any other crop. It's very hard on the land. You need to put down immense amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, the run-off of which is a pollutant. The farmers I was visiting were putting down 200 pounds per acre, in the full knowledge that corn could only use maybe 100 or 125 pounds per acre; they considered it crop insurance to put on an extra 75 to 100 pounds.
Where does that extra nitrogen go?
It goes into the roadside ditches and, in the case of the farms I visited, drains into the Raccoon River, which empties into the Des Moines River. The city of Des Moines has a big problem with nitrogen pollution. In the spring, the city issues "blue baby alerts," telling mothers not to let their children use the tap water because of the nitrates in it. The Des Moines River eventually finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where the excess nitrogen has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.
Thanks, Alex, this is a great interview.
I found a link to the entire article:
He just got around to figuring out that it's all about corn? He could have saved some time and come visit here - I'd have been more than happy to have driven him through the corn-thick countryside of Minnesota.
[Indian on a hilltop]
[/Indian on a hilltop]
This is all well and good, Mr Pollen's take. Let us contemplate this and see if we can bear the weight of our eating habits and what we do to this beautiful World in our numbness, in our addiction. We also know how to come off addiction, one day at a time, into abundance. A bun dance to, in, around and thru the soil foodweb. A bun dance to grass-fed, cared-for, killed-well animals helping us out of this mess, a bun dance for our body ecology and letting sauerkraut and kefir clean up our insides and both a boob and bun dance for having a great time feeding ourselves and showing others how, too.
Actually, JW, Pollan's been beating the drums about corn for well at least a year. I recall reading an article by him in the NYT Magazine.
Actually, JW, Pollan's been beating the drums about corn for well at least a year.
Wow - a whole year. :)
I really don't think you can grasp how funny it is (to a Minnesotan, at least) for him to say, "I think I've found the key to the American food chain."
He's found the key? You could walk down Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis and ask 100 people if they know all about the role of corn, and I bet you at least 25% of them could recount the same "discovery", since it's common knowledge here.
Go out into farm country, and then you're talking more like 80% who would know it.
Our state is covered in corn and we're home to some of the biggest food processors and agriculture conglomerates (eg, Cargill) in the world. We also produce and consume a lot of ethanol and are one of the top beef and hog states as well, and I can only imagine where we stand in terms of soda pop (and thus corn syrup) consumption.
In sum, we have corn coming out of our ears here. :)
I'm glad our readers give Pollan a harder time than me on food journalism!