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When corn is king

The ubiquitous vegetable is wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy, argues writer Michael Pollan

By Matthew MacLeanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2002


Food may well be one of the biggest stories of the new century.

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Witness the extensive news coverage of mad cow disease and E.coli contamination, and the controversies over growth hormones and genetic engineering. Modern-day Upton Sinclairs like Eric Schlossinger have given us exposés on the beef and fast-food industries. And the organic revolution has reached adulthood, with its coming out party on the cover of Newsweek last month.

So important has the food story become that the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, recently invited scientists, farmers, and government officials to talk to journalists about industrial food production, food-borne pathogens, and other issues in food writing.

Among those panelists was Michael Pollan – well-known for his groundbreaking books that explore the relationship between humans and nature. In "The Botany of Desire," Mr. Pollan looks at his garden in Connecticut and sees scheming arugula and plotting asparagus. We humans might think we control our agriculture and engineer our environment, but Pollan argues that plants use us as much as we use them. He follows the trail of the apple and the tulip to show how they cleverly manipulated American frontiersmen and Dutch merchants to extend their domain.

One plant has gone too far, however, according to the author. Pollan accuses corn of wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy.

Corn's place in the US economy is secure, judging by Congress's approval this spring of an unprecedented $190 billion farm-subsidy package. One of its largest beneficiaries was corn growers.

In an interview, Pollan talked about why he says that this brazen vegetable is calling the shots.

What exactly led you to corn?

When you see that a plant has taken over – like grasses and lawns, and like corn – it has somehow manipulated us. We're doing its evolutionary job, spreading it around, because it's made itself attractive to us. Corn is like this second great American lawn – I mean miles and miles of it, all through the Midwest, and even where I live in Connecticut. This plant is so successful. And the productivity of corn is astonishing. The reason is that it responds very well to fertilizer. We've gotten the yield per acre from 20 bushels a hundred years ago to 160 now.

Why is the productivity of corn a problem?

We're producing way too much corn. So, we make corn sweeteners. High-fructose corn sweeteners are everywhere. They've completely replaced sugar in sodas and soft drinks. They make sweet things cheaper. We also give it to animals. Corn explains everything about the cattle industry. It explains why we have to give [cattle] antibiotics, because corn doesn't agree with their digestive system. It explains why we have this E.coli 0157 problem, because the corn acidifies their digestive system in such a way that these bacteria can survive.

And we subsidize this overproduction. We structure the subsidies to make corn very, very cheap, which encourages farmers to plant more and more to make the same amount of money. The argument is that it helps us compete internationally. The great beneficiaries are the processors that are using corn domestically. We're subsidizing obesity. We're subsidizing the food-safety problems associated with feedlot beef. It's an absolutely irrational system. The people who worry about public health don't have any control over agricultural subsidies. The USDA is not thinking about public health. The USDA is thinking about getting rid of corn. And, helping [businesses] to be able to make their products more cheaply – whether it's beef or high-fructose corn syrup. Agribusiness gives an immense amount of funding to Congress.

What about corn growers?

To pull out of that system for them is very hard. It depends on where they live. They should be diversifying and growing other things, niche crops, and getting away from commodities. It's very hard to compete with agricultural commodities. Somebody [at the Berkeley conference] said that 40 percent of farm income is represented by subsidies. Say the farmer could make more money doing strawberries. There's no subsidy for that. So he's taking an enormous risk, and he's giving up for all time his corn subsidy.