Michael Pollan on The Cornification of America

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.

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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

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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