Pollan, M. 2006, The Omnivores Dilemma. NY. pg. 15 – 119, The Penguin Press, New York
Corn on the cob used to be my favourite vegetable for its versatility in dishes. Grilled corn is amazing in wraps, salads, soups and salsas. Even by itself, it is wonderful steamed, grilled, or roasted over an open fire. That is the versatility of corn that I knew when I was younger. Oh how horribly wrong I was. At that time (and currently), the industrial world had entirely different plans for what a shocking amount of us today still think of as an innocent simple grain. It is, however, not any more a grain that we just simply eat off the cob, then flossing out the bits and pieces of style from between our teeth. Corn has found its home in forms where I’m sure it would have never seen itself when it was first “domesticated” in Mexico. Corn has settled into its new home as processed food, biofuel, and that god-awful high fructose corn syrup. Not only has corn settled here, but it’s not showing any signs of moving out, and I don’t think it will (at least for a long time). In this reading, the author discusses all things corn, a topic I have had strong opinions on since I first learned about the true form of the corn industry.
Pollan wrote this book with the initial intent of following a grain of corn from seed to the table, however this can pose a major challenge. Not only has corn become a monstrous cut-throat industry, but it has reached the point where corn is an unrecognisable product once it hits the table. I really enjoyed how the author spent time with the actual farmers and got their perspective on the subject. Pollan didn’t just interview these farmers either; he actually went out and did some of the work with them during his quest to follow corn to the table.
In Iowa, corn rules. Corn hasn’t just taken over the economy of Iowa, but the entire landscape. In Iowa, all farmers grow is corn. “Why do they do it?” (a question Pollan asks on page 48). It’s not like they make any money doing it. More farmers means more corn, which then means lower prices of corn. What I have decided, from reading this book, is that the farmers are stuck in this position. If the farmer doesn’t grow the only crop that is needed in the state (corn), then he/she shall starve. If their yield is low and their grain quality sub-par, then the farmer will also starve. This increases the initiative for the farmer to increase their yield/quality every year, which creates even more corn and competition between farms. George’s friend Billy, has now resorted to driving a big rig truck (an industry that has also definitely seen better times) in the off-season to pay off all the debt he has accumulated spending money on farming equipment: “Yield is everything”.
I don’t even know where to start with my endless rant on chemical fertilizer,something that Pollan discusses in section 4 of the book: There Goes the Sun. I’ll keep it nice and simple and discuss its effects on the environment. This stuff is truly terrible for ecosystems. Farmers today are pouring this trash onto their fields in an excess of almost twice of what is needed to produce the optimal crop. It ends up evaporating into our atmosphere creating acid rain, and it runs into lakes and rivers polluting our drinking water. Let’s not forget about the incident we had with blue-green algae in Lake Eerie in 2011. The algal bloom that year created vast amounts of HAB toxins in the water creating huge dead zones. These toxins couldn’t be boiled or evaporated out of the water, only increasing in concentration when boiled rendering it undrinkable to humans. Why did this algal bloom happen? Corn. Over-fertilization in the area created huge amounts of run-off rich in phosphorus and nitrogen into the lake: A truly harmful disaster.
I liked how Pollan compares humans to corn on page 37. He discusses how modern hybrids have become able to tolerate the corn equivalent of city life for us, as well as how the plants have become genetically identical to one another. No plant is different in nutrient uptake or productivity, a truly socialistic society of plants.
“Back and forth and back again, a half a mile in each direction, planting corn feels less like planting, or even driving, than stitching an interminable cloak, or covering a page with the same sentence over and over again.” This passage immediately made me think of Stephen King’s “The Shining”, a book that displays some of the most memorable insane psychotic behaviour, including Jack Torrence writing a book that consisted of only one line over and over again. Maybe the modern day farmer feels the same way Jack did in that book: Stuck in the cabin fever-inducing state of Iowa, closed in by the forever growing heaps of 34H31 and 33P67 at the grain elevator.