Tuesday, December 18, 2007

People of the Corn

I just started reading Michael Pollan's book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and so far it's been a fascinating and somewhat frightening read. It's an interesting time for me to be reading this book- halfway through my DeSloFooMo challenge. One of the things I like about this current challenge is that it has made me take a closer look at the food I'm putting in my body and how it gets from wherever it is grown or raised to me.

Before DeSloFooMo, I really didn't give much thought to the food I ate. I know it seems crazy, but I never considered who made the Trader Joe's prepared lasagna I like. I never considered where it was made or when. I didn't think about where the lettuce for my prepared salad was grown, or whether the dressing was made with high fructose corn syrup. I bought organic at times, and didn't when I was feeling cheap. Food sustains me, but it didn't sustain my interest. I just ... didn't care.

Since starting the challenge, I've become more keenly interested in the food I eat. I've bought mostly organic when it was an option. I've examined ingredient labels. And since I'm the one preparing my lasagna, I know when it was made and where. I felt like I was becoming much more food conscious and savvy.

But as I read this book, I realize, I still have so much to learn.

One of the most interesting parts of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" has to do with its in depth coverage of the corn industry. I knew that corn was in a lot of foods and drinks, and yet, I never really realized the extent until I started reading this book. Pollan writes that while Mexican descendants of the Mayans may claim to be "the corn people," the truth is that Americans have more of a claim to that title:

But carbon 13 doesn't lie, and researchers who have compared the isotopes in the flesh or hair of North Americans to those in the same tissues of Mexicans report that it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn. "When you look at the isotope ratios," Todd Dawson, a Berkeley biologist who's done this sort of research, told me, "we North Americans look like corn chips with legs." Compared to us, Mexicans today consume a far more varied carbon diet: the animals they eat still eat grass (until recently, Mexicans regarded feeding corn to livestock as a sacrilege); much of their protein comes from legumes; and they still sweeten their beverages with cane sugar.
So that's us: processed corn, walking (Dilemma 23).

I knew from traveling to other parts of the world that most other countries weren't as addicted to high fructose corn syrup, but I didn't give much thought to what we feed our livestock. As it turns out, corn is in our sodas, our burgers, and probably in our fries as well.

Was I a really a 'corn chip with legs?' I started to pull jars out of cabinets to get a closer look at what I was eating. The cereal I ate today didn't have high fructose corn syrup, but it does contain corn bran and corn starch. The milk I drank probably came from a corn-fed cow. The yogurt I had was imported from Greece, so the cows there probably weren't fed corn, but I really don't know much about Greek farming. The honey I had with the yogurt is corn-free, as was the peanut butter and jelly I ate. (Both were organic, from Trader Joes. Smucker's would have contained high fructose corn syrup.) But the bread for my PB&J sandwich? Contained corn flour.

Obviously corn isn't a bad guy. I love corn, corn bread, and corn tortillas. But the idea that we're unconsciously eating so much corn is scary. And the more I read and learn, the more I realize that the way we grow our food is fundamentally problematic.

And yet, it seems unlikely to be changed.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE that book. And yes, smuckers does have HFCS. As do like 99% of all foods. I found this out when I stopped eating HFCS this past may. Learn to buy organic ketchup :)

EcoGeoFemme said...

Extremely good point. I started really thinking about food production after I read Fast Food Nation. But I think about this kind of thing quite a bit because my work is tied very closely to agriculture. How about this food for thought: given that corn is in all our food, what happens when we start to use it for fuel instead? Both the current food production practices and the nation's interest in biofuels are pretty unsettling.

Mouse said...

Iz relevant 2 ur intrests

ruchi said...

Mouse, thanks for the documentary recommendation. I'll definitely check that out!

M said...


Did you see his article in this weekend's NY Times Magazine? It was really interesting. I have a post in the works that discusses part of that article (about antibiotic use in meat industry).

I never read the Omni. Dilemma b/c for some reason as a vegetarian, not omnivore, I thought it wouldn't apply to me. And though I'm familiar with some food issues, such as the prevalence of corn in our food that you mention, I'm sure I'd have a lot to learn by reading that book, and his other writings (articles and so on).

As I've been reading other people's discussion of the points in that book, I've realized it really applies to all of us, not just meat eaters or whatever.

The article of his I read this weekend makes a point similar to one he makes about the corn issue, which is that for reasons of profit, we are manipulating things in a way that is not"natural" (i.e. feeding "raw materials"--for example animals who are not just products but beings and part of nature--things that don't agree with them), and then in turn having to take all sorts of steps to deal with the side effects of our actions, steps which then lead to other widespread problems, like overuse of antibiotics, e coli, etc.

In the Times article he talks about how by going against the natural order in order to commodify animals, etc. we end up harming ourselves/our society in the long run in very serious ways. You can mess with nature, but you can't avoid the consequences of doing so.

I think M. Pollen's work is something I really would benefit from becoming more familiar with. Thanks so much for bringing up this issue--like you I have so much to learn and really appreciate when my fellow bloggers bring important issues like this to the surface. (p.s thanks for your comment on my blog--I wouldn't have found this post otherwise)