When corn is king

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

What about economies of scale? We've been able to feed more people, democratize meat.

I don't know if democratizing beef is a good thing. The industry can always make the popular arguments, because they certainly make things cheaper. But is it really cheap? Think of the taxpayer, who's actually subsidizing every one of those burgers. All that corn requires an immense amount of fossil fuel. Corn requires more fertilizers and pesticides than other crops. It takes the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline to grow every bushel of corn. [Almost] everything we do to protect our oil supply ... is a cost of that burger.

And then there are the health costs. It's not really good for us. Corn-fed beef has much more saturated fat. So, yeah, it's cheap, if you only look at the price tag.

You talked about how you were encouraged by the idea of engineering corn so it could be a perennial.

I have no problem with interfering with nature. We live in places where we can only live by changing the environment. This is the human condition, and I don't think that's bad. It's working with nature. It's taking the prairie and figuring out a way to get food out of [it] without having to plow, without having to break the sod. If you could make corn and wheat and rice perennials rather than annuals, you would just come and mow it, and get your food that way, instead of having to tear it up every year. That could help end world hunger.

Many people read your book and think of ... Thoreau.

Like him, I'm interested in looking at my relationship with the natural world, and doing it in my backyard rather than wandering around in Yosemite or the Amazon. And he used his everyday experiences to explore his connections to the much larger world. However, I see us as having much more participation in the natural world. I don't have as much of a sense of opposition between nature and culture. At this point, I think we have more to learn by looking at the working landscape: farms and gardens. I think we have said all we can say about the 8 percent of this country that's untouched. It's still very important. However, there is this other 92 percent. We need models of how to take care of that.

You talk about ending our love affair with the lawn.

I call it in my first book a totalitarian landscape. You have wilderness on one side and the lawn on the other end. I don't think you choose between them. You work on that middle answer. Even though we think we are subjugating those lawns, we're probably doing exactly what they want us to do. Because, if you're a lawn, what do you want? You want some creature to come along every week and mow you so the trees won't come back. So, in fact we're dupes of our lawns.

Do you have any corn in your garden?

Not this year. I have a big raccoon problem. As soon as the corn gets ripe, they come in and steal it. So I guess corn isn't winning in every way. But it may be in the corn's interest to have a raccoon eat it, because they're so wasteful. They leave more seed around.

There's corn in that?

• Of 10,000 items in a typical grocery store, at least 2,500 use corn in some form during production or processing.

• Your bacon and egg breakfast, glass of milk at lunch, or hamburger for supper were all produced with US corn.

• Besides food for human and livestock consumption, corn is used in paint, paper products, cosmetics, tires, fuel, plastics, textiles, explosives, and wallboard – among other things.

• In the US, corn leads all other crops in value and volume of production – more than double that of any other crop.

• Corn is America's chief crop export, with total bushels exported exceeding total bushels used domestically for food, seed, and industrial purposes.

Sources: www.campsilos.org; www.public.iastate.edu; www.ontariocorn.org;

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