When corn is king
The ubiquitous vegetable is wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy, argues writer Michael Pollan
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What about economies of scale? We've been able to feed more people, democratize meat.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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;