We’re Living on Corn!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

by Michael Pollan

Penguin, 450 pp., $26.95

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

by Bill McKibben

Times Books, 261 pp., $25.00

Michael Pollan believes that America has a national eating disorder, and in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, he shows that it goes back a long way–at least to the early 1900s, when Dr. John Harvey Kellogg attracted crowds to his sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan. There the inmates endured all-grape diets and almost hourly enemas, yet despite the discomfort (or perhaps because of it) his quackery flourished and Kellogg soon found himself with competitors. Among them was Horace Fletcher, otherwise known as “the Great Masticator.” Fletcher recommended chewing each mouthful of food one hundred times. I still remember my mother instructing me in 1950s Australia to chew my food one hundred times on each side. Just how this doubling of the great masticator’s dictum occurred is unclear to me, but I can tell you that after the twentieth chew or thereabouts, most kinds of food were reduced to a bilious sludge.

Down the decades the food faddists have just kept coming, and today we seem to have more of them (even if they are less flamboyant) than ever before. Among the better known are the late Dr. Atkins with his low-carbohydrate diet and Dr. Sears with his Zone plan. Then there are the more obscure Dr. Brownell with the LEARN scheme and Dr. Ornish with a regime named after himself. Pollan argues that Americans are more susceptible to such fads because they lack a food tradition that embodies the wisdom of earlier generations. Maybe so, but faddish diets seem to be prospering everywhere, and the public has never been more confused, or more misled, about the simple matter of eating. Many of us, it seems, have more or less given up. A recent study found that one out of every five Canadians eats by selecting from a group of ten or fewer food types.

As intriguing as they are, Pollan does not overly concern himself with diet fads, for he has an altogether more weighty matter in his sights: the dysfunction of the entire American industrial food complex. The situation is a lot worse than most of us dare imagine, for Americans are some of the most specialized eaters on earth. At the base of the national food chain is a single species of grass–corn–and its growth, processing, and sale constitute a titanic industry which is focused on increasing profits rather than health and well-being.

In America, foods as diverse as Gatorade, Ring Dings, and hamburgers have their beginning with corn. Indeed, huge factories transform its kernels into an almost unimaginable array of compounds. To illustrate how pervasive corn’s influence is, Pollan gives us the example of the chicken nugget, which he says “piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn” (because the chickens are corn-fed), as does “the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget ‘fresh’ can all be derived from corn.”

So dominant has this giant grass become that of the 45,000-odd items in American supermarkets, more than one quarter contain corn. Disposable diapers, trash bags, toothpaste, charcoal briquettes, matches, batteries, and even the shine on the covers of magazines all contain corn. In America, all meat is also ultimately corn: chickens, turkeys, pigs, and even cows (which would be far healthier and happier eating grass) are forced into eating corn, as are, increasingly, carnivores such as salmon.

If you doubt the ubiquity of corn you can take a chemical test. It turns out that corn has a peculiar carbon structure which can be traced in everything that consumes it. Compare a hair sample from an American and a tortilla-eating Mexican and you’ll discover that the American contains a far larger proportion of corn-type carbon. “We North Americans look like corn chips with legs,” says one of the researchers who conducts such tests.

You might argue that there’s nothing wrong with eating such a corn-rich diet. But you are what you eat, and Pollan provides much graphic evidence that the American way of eating spreads illness, waste, and ecological devastation across the globe. As its title suggests, his book follows the makings–from farm to plate–of four very different meals. The first is a pure product of the industrial complex that feeds most of us–a McDonald’s meal eaten in a car. Next he examines an organic meal, then a meal prepared from ingredients grown on an ingenious farm called Polyface in the Shenandoah Valley. Finally Pollan relates the making of a meal made almost entirely of ingredients he himself harvests from the suburbs and hills of northern California, where he lives.

Pollan’s research into the origins of the McDonald’s meal takes him to the farm of George Naylor in Greene County, Iowa. Like his neighbors, George is slowly going broke growing corn for what he calls the “military-industrial complex,” and he is only able to stay on the land because of a salary earned away from the farm by his wife. You don’t have to look far to find the cause of this, for the more corn George grows, the faster he goes broke. That’s because in order to grow more corn you need more expensive fertilizer, special seed stock, and machinery, which farmers can ill afford. Yet because they often need the big paycheck, and because they are urged to do so by industry reps and government agencies, corn farmers continue to grow larger and larger crops. They all hope for a good price for corn, but because so much is being produced, improvements in the price never seem to arrive. Iowa State University estimates that it costs $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn, but when Pollan visited in October 2005 the grain elevators were paying farmers $1.45. The only reason the system survives is that the federal government gives farmers substantial subsidies. Federal payments “account for nearly half the income of the average Iowa corn farmer, and represent roughly a quarter of the $19 billion US taxpayers spend each year on payments to farmers.”

Not only is the industrial corn production system destroying farm families, it is destroying the farms themselves. The soil on Naylor’s farm is beautifully rich and two feet thick. What you can’t see, Pollan tells us, is the soil that’s no longer there. Originally there was four feet of soil, but intensive crop growing has destroyed half of that natural bounty. Only corn diseases, debt, and the wind (which has increased markedly since fences and trees were torn down to make way for more corn) seem to be prospering in the bleak Iowa landscape described by Pollan.

In order to follow the food chain, Pollan buys a steer–a nameless creature bearing only the number 534–and follows it from the Blair Ranch in South Dakota, where it was born, to the feedlot where it is fattened for slaughter. Despite its having been branded and castrated at the Blair Ranch, Pollan thinks that No. 534 might look back at its time there as the “good old days,” for its life on the feedlot is grim indeed.

Cows have not evolved to feed on corn. Nor are they suited to living in crowded conditions while standing up to their ankles in feces. In the feedlot, however, they have little choice. The corn diet induces indigestion, which must be treated with repeated courses of antibiotics, and the cows seem to be miserable or vacant a lot of the time. They are subjected to this regime because it makes them grow fast, and in times past they were even fed the offal from other slaughtered cows, which is how mad cow disease came into the food supply.

Pollan describes a Karmic cycle in which the poor health of the feedlotted cows is visited on their consumers. Because they are not allowed to eat grass, their meat is higher in dangerous fats and lower in good ones than that of cows leading a more natural life. And the abattoirs where they are slaughtered need to be absolutely fastidious about hygiene, because bacteria on their skins thrive in the crowded, fecal conditions, and could easily contaminate their meat. Despite all of this, grain-fed beef has a cachet in America, where it is preferred by many for its alleged tenderness. I’m often offered it with pride, even by up-market restaurants that don’t seem interested in serving meat from cows that have lived their life on the range. Having read Pollan’s book, I’m now ordering buffalo.

Corn of course is used for many purposes apart from feeding factory-farmed chickens, cattle, and pigs. High-fructose corn syrup, for example, has replaced sugar in many processed food and beverages, and is now, according to Pollan, “the most valuable food product refined from corn, accounting for 530 million bushels every year.” But in trying to track down how such products are made, Pollan hits a dead end. The big corn millers–Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland–won’t let him into their factories, so he wasn’t allowed to see how the corn products Americans consume are the result of complicated chemical processing.

Reading Pollan’s book, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the food industry has confined many Americans to their own urban feedlots, in which they have grown obese, ill, and uncurious about the source or nutritional quality of their food. In this system, human appetites are simply another bottleneck to be overcome in the search for greater sales. Hence the “supersizing” now so prevalent at fast-food outlets. A segment of the American population, however, is making a break for food freedom. They can often be found haunting the organic section of the supermarket, and in his quest to understand how their food is produced, Pollan travels to the great California farms where most organic produce is grown.

In the 1970s the organic food movement was a local, small-scale affair which was established as an open act of rebellion, but those days are long gone. Today, organic farms are hard to distinguish at a glance from their nonorganic neighbors, and indeed they are often worked by the same crews of migrant laborers. It’s not all bad news, however, for organic methods are kinder to the soil, and they do not permit use of synthetic hormones and antibiotics. But still, organic food is subject to industrialization in ways that damage the environment. For example, it is often transported over vast distances, thereby burning much fossil fuel.

It’s only when Pollan arrives at Polyface Farm, in pursuit of his third meal, that we see a vision of production that seems miraculous in its capacity to nurture both us and the environment. The farm is owned by Joel Salatin, whose father purchased it in the 1960s when it was a run-down dairy farm full of erosion gullies. As a result of careful ecological sculpting, that land now produces 35,000 dozen eggs, 10,000 broiler hens, 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of hogs, 1,200 turkeys, and 1,000 rabbits every year. All this is achieved without artificial fertilizer, hormones, or antibiotics and, even more remarkably, Salatin has converted 450 of his 550 acres to forest! The birds and other creatures it harbors, and the woodchips it yields, all play vital parts in maintaining the productivity of the 100 acres of worked land.

The secret of Salatin’s astounding success is a deep understanding of ecology. Everything on the farm works with everything else to promote fertility, and the creatures all seem to lead fulfilling lives. The laying hens, for example, roost in “eggmobiles” that are moved around the farm, allowing them to feed on the maggots in cow pats and spread about their own nitrogen-rich fertilizer. The cows graze grass in a rotational pattern, sweetening the pasture, while the pigs root in the compost, helping to turn it over, aiding the compost’s fertility.

While at Polyface, Pollan slaughters chickens, an experience that causes him to investigate animal rights. He deplores the practices to which animals are subjected on factory farms, and condemns them on grounds of cruelty. Yet after seeing how the animals live at Polyface, and understanding how integral they are to the fertility of this marvelous farm, he decides that it would be better for the ecology, our human health, and for animals as a whole if most of us became eaters of sustainably produced meat. Many readers will doubtless ask whether vegetarianism is better still. Pollan tells us that even vegan lifestyles result in animal cruelty. Just think of the thousands of field mice shredded by harvesters, the woodchucks crushed in their burrows by tractors, and the songbirds poisoned by pesticides when farmers grow the wheat for our bread. Pollan’s message seems to be that to live we must kill, and the best we can do is both treat animals decently while they live and kill them humanely.

An important aspect of the success of Polyface Farm is that Joel Salatin believes that everything has its own scale. He doesn’t want a bigger farm or to grow more eggs (despite the fact that demand is high), because to do that would knock the entire enterprise out of balance. You need just so many chickens per cow on such a farm, and if the whole thing becomes too big, the farmer himself can’t give the attention that the entire complex system requires.

One of the most heartening things about the Salatin farm is that all of the produce is eaten locally, thus minimizing the impact on climate through reducing the burning of fossil fuels to transport it. And the produce is good. A chef who uses the farm’s produce told Pollan: “Oh, those beautiful eggs! The difference is night and day–the color and richness and fat content. There’s just no comparison. I always have to adjust my recipes for these eggs–you never need as many as they call for.”

Pollan is entirely converted by Salatin’s approach to food production, but he worries about how applicable it is to the big cities, so he decides to ask the farmer how he thinks New York might fit into the local food economy. Salatin’s answer is not much help: “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?” he replies.

Pollan’s final meal is both wonderfully comical and deeply revealing of human nature. He decides that it will be based on wild boar and mushrooms, despite the fact that he’s never hunted and his mother has imbued him with a deep dread of poisonous toadstools. Pollan’s description of hunting–the singleness of purpose, the drama, the “fog of war” that descends following the shot, and the stomach-churning task of “dressing” the carcass–is completely absorbing. In trying to sum up the kaleidoscope of emotion it released in him, he paraphrases Ortega y Gasset,[3] saying that “hunting offers us our last best chance to escape history and return to the state of nature.” He adds: “It’s even messier than the moralist thinks. Having killed a pig and looked at myself in that picture and now looking forward (if that’s the word) to eating that pig, I have to say that there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu-eater. Yet part of me pities him, too.” Although the hunted boar, “a very large grayish sow”–part of “a large group of pigs, big ones and babies together”–supplies the most deeply satisfying meal of all, Pollan acknowledges it is a satisfaction that most people will not be able to have.

The question left hanging by Pollan–can we create a new and better food production system for Americans?–is explored in a very practical manner at the beginning of Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy. McKibben, who lives in Vermont near Lake Champlain, conducts an experiment which he calls “the year of eating locally.” During the warmer months, McKibben explains, if you live in his area you’d be crazy to do anything but eat locally. The challenge comes, however, with the short, cold days of winter. As he tries to locate the resources he will need to survive, McKibben discovers wonderful people in his neighborhood, including a farmer who grows fifty varieties of potatoes on three acres, a bison wrangler, and even an emu farmer, who can supply part of his requirements.

Some essentials are missing. Oats once grew everywhere in the valley, but the industrialization of farming means that today none can be had in the region. By February, McKibben’s eleven-year-old daughter (a remarkably tolerant and even-tempered child, one suspects) was “using the words ‘icky’ and ‘disgusting’ fairly regularly, always in connection with root vegetables…. It is a little hard to imagine how people got through winter on the contents of their root cellars alone,” McKibben admits.

Can eating locally be done in the larger cities? McKibben finds lots of evidence that this is possible. A few hundred acres of wasteland known as the Intervale near the center of Burlington, Vermont, provides one example. When Will Rapp, who runs a catalog company, arrived in Burlington in 1980 the floodplain soil of the Intervale was buried under four or five feet of garbage. He formed a nonprofit foundation and leased two hundred acres of it, which he rented in smaller lots to people who wanted to start gardening. Today, those two hundred acres yield over half a million pounds of produce annually, and supply 7 or 8 percent of all the fresh food consumed in Burlington. The productivity of this plot, which is farmed sustainably, is truly astonishing. But could you feed Manhattan in this manner? “You could not; every place is different,” says McKibben. Knowing a few New Yorkers, however, I suspect that these words will be seen as more of a challenge than a verdict.

Deep Economy is about far more than food. At its heart is a marvelous exposition of Joel Salatin’s belief that everything has an appropriate scale. For McKibben, the appropriate scale for a sustainable and fulfilling life is the community. The dysfunction that comes with increasing scale is revealed adroitly when he investigates the impact of Wal-Mart upon the economic health of communities:

By now the sequence of events is depressingly clear: the big box store out by the interstate drains the life out of downtown, shuttering businesses left and right. In the few years when Wal-Mart was expanding fastest in Iowa, the state lost 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety shops, 158 women’s clothing stores and 116 pharmacies.

Summarizing the impact, McKibben says that while individuals may benefit from lower prices, their communities inevitably suffer, which eventually leads to a worse deal for all. This is seen clearly when we take account of the money the megastores suck out of the regions they operate in. A dollar spent in a local store stays in the town, while the same amount spent in Wal-Mart exits quickly. Studies from Great Britain show that £10 spent on a local food business is worth £25 to the local economy, but only £14 if spent at a supermarket. According to the study:

The farmer buys a drink at the local pub; the pub owner gets a car tune-up at the local mechanic; the mechanic brings a shirt to the local tailor; the tailor buys some bread at the local bakery; the baker buys wheat for bread and fruit for muffins from the local farmer. When these businesses are not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction.

It is not only the food business that prospers if our lives are lived at the right scale. McKibben provides a wonderful example of how the expansion of radio networks in America–at the expense of truly local radio stations–has cost communities dear. In the 1920s people perceived that radio had an important social function, and the rules reflected that. In 1928 the FCC ruled that “the commission is convinced that the interest of the broadcast listener is of superior importance to that of the broadcaster…. Such benefit as is derived by advertisers must be incidental and entirely secondary to the interests of the public.” Remarkably, there are still a few local radio stations–such as Vermont’s WDEV–that continue to reflect this. But for every such survivor there are a thousand that have been slain by the Rush Limbaughs of the world.

The offerings of local radio stations, in McKibben’s account, tend to reflect the interests of the community. They are characterized by a mix of music, both left- and right-leaning commentary, and items of local interest and importance. When a big flood hit Montpelier, Vermont, the owner of WDEV says, “we took all our sales staff and turned them into reporters.” As radio stations grow in size they lose both their diversity of offerings and this sense of service to the community, and instead many of them begin spouting a steady diet of right-wing rubbish. One suspects that were they confined to truly local radio, the likes of Rush Limbaugh would be more clearly seen as nothing but the offensive, bigoted buffoons that they are. If, that is, they could get anywhere near a microphone in the first place.

In one aspect of life after another McKibben shows us how globalization has destroyed communities and detracted from the quality of life of Americans. Lumber now comes from overexploited forests rather than carefully shepherded local woodlots. Our food travels 1,500 miles to reach us, and as we gather in celebration to eat it, globalization deprives us of further pleasures. I suspect that most older Americans can remember an uncle or aunt who sang at family weddings and get-togethers. Today, the pride they and their family took in such performances has been replaced by recorded music. It may be technically superior, but it lacks the heart and “community” of the old ways.

There is evidence that all of this dysfunction is leading to an epidemic of psychological depression in America. A study done in 1985 reveals that only 1.3 percent of Americans born in 1910 had suffered a major depressive episode in their lifetime–which is remarkable given the wars, economic crises, and change they experienced–but that 5.3 percent of those born after 1960 had experienced one. “Each succeeding cohort in each area had a higher rate of depression than cohorts before it. There were huge differences…suggesting a roughly ten-fold increase in risk for depression across generations.” Tellingly, the Old Order Amish do not exhibit such a trend, perhaps because their community is more intact.

Why has America so often given rise to the great, community-destroying corporations? McKibben argues that the unique view many Americans have of the Bible is revealing. “75 percent of American Christians think the saying ‘God helps those who help themselves’ can be found in the Bible,” he writes. While misunderstandings about the Bible are widespread (12 percent of Americans are confident that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife), this one is special. It was Benjamin Franklin, in fact, who came up with the saying, and it was meant to express the hyperindividualist vigor of the young, frontier America. In fact Franklin’s sentiments are markedly out of step with the Bible’s central teachings. McKibben (who was once a Sunday school teacher) tells us, “Every time Jesus tries to sum up his message, he falls back on the formula ‘Love your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ That is, he posits a life built around others.”

Thus do American values contribute to the feedlotting of their champions and true believers. But the American bureaucracy is also doing its part to keep its citizens well corralled. Both Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben have little but harsh words for the US Department of Agriculture, whose rules and regulations are tailored to give advantage to the big corporations, and make it exceedingly difficult for small-scale growers to get their produce to market.

With so much against them, the prospect that Americans can regain control of their food chain might seem poor. But readers of these two excellent books will surely perceive that the gate to the urban feedlot is now ajar, and that by following the sage advice of McKibben and Pollan they are free to move to better pastures. If they do so in numbers, then the process of healing their bodies, their communities, and their environment could begin.