There's a lot on the menu, but it's mostly corn

Cheap crops feed millions, but they’re taking a tremendous toll on our health and our environment.

In today’s journey through the modern food system, we learn that — for better or worse — almost everything we eat is derived from a single plant.

You have your choice of a book or documentary: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan or Food, Inc., available on Netflix. Both explore the industrial food chain and compare it to organic and pastoral options, and the result is the illumination of the good and the bad of the ubiquitousness of corn.

When I opened this book, I thought it was going to make me a vegan.

But the author goes to great lengths not to reject meat — in fact, with the exception of fast food, he savors it. (Beware, however, the movie gets pretty gruesome.)

The title is a reference to the dilemma that we, as omnivores, face every time we decide what to eat. Unlike specialized eaters (koalas who eat only eucalyptus, pandas who eat only bamboo), we expend a lot of brain power determining and remembering which foods are safe, nutritious and delicious. In modern life, this means a ton of analysis, anxiety and indecision about what to put on the table. In the US, where there’s no strong cultural food norm (compared, for example, to cultures with centuries of food heritage like Italy or Japan), there’s even more dietary vacillation. The result is that we are constantly chasing the next trend, and on the whole, we’re unhealthy eaters.

The flexibility of the American diet is where corn enters the scene.

In the early 20th century, breakthroughs in chemistry combined with heavy government subsidies made it possible to grow tremendous amounts of corn, sell it profitably, and turn it into just about anything, including but not limited to food. The result is a glut of corn, and a web of government policies that prop up a thin profit margin for corn farmers. Another side effect is that we’re consuming corn even when we don’t realize it, in products like:

  • Household items like diapers, batteries and matches.

  • The meat from chicken and cows who eat corn as they’re raised.

  • Cardboard boxes, drywall and magazines, sprayed with a corn-based coating.

  • Pretty much everything at your typical fast-food restaurant.

A chicken nugget is meat from a corn-fed chicken, wrapped in a corn-based breading, with a side of fries that are usually cooked in corn oil. If you add a shake or non-diet soda, that’s sweetened by corn too.

The fact that corn is feeding huge numbers of people at low prices isn’t inherently bad.

The success of corn parallels the success of synthetic fertilizer, which converts petroleum into nitrogen that can feed our crops and exceed the limits of nature. This has allowed us to largely eliminate hunger in many parts of the world, and for the human population to balloon. The tricky paradox is that what’s great for an individual also produces pollution, environmental degradation and significant health issues when you look at it with a national or worldwide perspective.

First, the massive amount of fertilizer that’s added to the the soil ends up in the water. In the US, most of it flows down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where there is a “dead zone” at the mouth of the river because of the water’s unnaturally high level of nitrogen. Second, feeding corn to animals who don’t eat it naturally, especially cows, causes them to become sick and spread diseases, like E. coli, that are rare or nonexistent on their natural diet. And the combination of subsidies and corporate patents on corn seeds has kept farmers locked in a vicious cycle, where they’re producing huge amounts of corn, barely breaking even, and thus being compelled to produce even more corn.

So here’s the challenge: what’s a feasible alternative?

The documentary and book both visit Polyface Farms in Virginia, a fascinating, nearly self-sustaining system where animals and plants interact naturally and “do all the dirty work” — chickens eat the bugs, cows mow the lawn, and so on as the natural loop continues. This is by far the most interesting section of the book, and I highly recommend it just for this.

The book, which was written in 2007, foreshadows (and perhaps contributed to) the rise of organic grocery products and a heavier emphasis on grass-fed, pastorally raised foods. However, the author and the book’s protagonists are also well aware of the fundamental question: How do you feed a growing population cheaply if you do it the natural way?

That’s our true dilemma.