February 06, 2005

Interview With Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author of one of my favorite books: The Botany of Desire. Today, TomDispatch has an informative interview with Pollan talking about what he's working on now, what he thinks of the state of journalism and how he came to his style of writing where he uses the first person perspective to put context into his writing. One fascinating topic they cover is how corn is the basis of our food chain and the problems this causes.

You've taken a critical look at what you've called "the cornification of America." What do you mean?

It appears I have a kind of corn obsession. I'm like that character in Middlemarch, Professor Causabon, who thought he had the key to the universe, the key to all mythologies. In corn, I think I've found the key to the American food chain.

How so?

If you look at a fast-food meal, a McDonald's meal, virtually all the carbon in it -- and what we eat is mostly carbon -- comes from corn. A Chicken McNugget is corn upon corn upon corn, beginning with corn-fed chicken all the way through the obscure food additives and the corn starch that holds it together. All the meat at McDonald's is really corn. Chickens have become machines for converting two pounds of corn into one pound of chicken. The beef, too, is from cattle fed corn on feedlots. The main ingredient in the soda is corn -- high-fructose corn syrup. Go down the list. Even the dressing on the new salads at McDonald's is full of corn.

I recently spent some time on an Iowa corn farm. These cornfields are basically providing the building blocks for the fast-food nation. In my new book, I want to show people how this process works, and how this monoculture in the field leads to a different kind of monoculture on the plate.

What does this do to the land?

Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you. When you're growing corn in that kind of intensive monoculture, it requires more pesticide and more fertilizer than any other crop. It's very hard on the land. You need to put down immense amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, the run-off of which is a pollutant. The farmers I was visiting were putting down 200 pounds per acre, in the full knowledge that corn could only use maybe 100 or 125 pounds per acre; they considered it crop insurance to put on an extra 75 to 100 pounds.

Where does that extra nitrogen go?

It goes into the roadside ditches and, in the case of the farms I visited, drains into the Raccoon River, which empties into the Des Moines River. The city of Des Moines has a big problem with nitrogen pollution. In the spring, the city issues "blue baby alerts," telling mothers not to let their children use the tap water because of the nitrates in it. The Des Moines River eventually finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where the excess nitrogen has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.

What is a dead zone?

It's a place where the nitrogen has stimulated such growth of algae and phytoplankton that it starves that area of oxygen, and fish cannot live in it. The dead zone hasn't gotten much attention, compared to carbon pollution; but, in terms of the sheer scale of human interference in one of the crucial natural cycles, it's arguably even more dramatic. Fully half of the terrestrial nitrogen in the world today is manmade, from fertilizers.

Our dependence on corn for a "cheap meal" is a fundamental absurdity. Seventy percent of the grain we grow in this country goes to feed livestock. Most of this livestock is cattle, which are uniquely suited to eating grass, not corn. To help them tolerate corn, we have to pump antibiotics into the cattle; and because the corn diet leads to pathogens, we then need to irradiate their meat to make it safe to eat. Feeding so much corn to cattle thus creates new and entirely preventable public health problems.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel--it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn. What that means is that one of the things we're defending in the Persian Gulf is the cornfields and the Big Mac. Another cost is the subsidies: For corn alone, it's four or five billion dollars a year in public money to support the corn farmers that make possible our cheap hamburger. Then you've got the problem of obesity because these cheap calories happen to be some of the most fattening.

We're paying for a 99-cent burger in our health-care bills, in our environmental cleanup bills, in our military budget, and in the disappearance of the family farm. So it really isn't cheap at all.

Posted by Mary at February 6, 2005 03:19 PM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |

It's a shame that this issue doesn't "resonate" (judging from the paucity of comments). Anybody who wants to be well-informed about anything should at least do themselves the favor of grabbing an almanac and reading how much corn we produce, and how much we export.

Yes, the U.S. is an industrialized nation, but mainly in the sense that our corn production is an industry. In terms of output or our role on the world stage, we are an agrarian nation, and I don't mean that in the 'good' sense of the family farm or whatever other hokey folklore you might associate with the term agrarian. I mean that in the sense of oligarchy, and a population regarded by the ruling class as a mob of serfs.

As long as we continue to ignore the big issues, like our corn dependency, they won't be far wrong.

Posted by: serial catowner at February 8, 2005 09:04 AM

Imagine being alergic to corn like my wife is. We are bathed in the stuff. It has probably made us healthier, because it has forced us to eat better food and stay out of restaurants. But even eating at friends or relatives houses is just about impossible because it takes just one very well hidden ingredient to cause a reaction. We would all be better off without the damned stuff.

Posted by: Dave at February 9, 2005 04:43 AM