The industrial eater: a walking stalk of processed corn.

Pollan, M.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Group, United States of America. Pg 15-119.

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You are what you eat. Based on Pollan’s book the “Omnivores Dilemma”, this means we are corn, more specifically processed corn. We begin reading this book with a look at the supermarket. You can walk into any supermarket and see so much food, so much diversity in the store. Pollan reminds us that naturalists regard diversity as a measure of ecosystem health. I do not think that is true in this case because a supermarket is a measure of agriculture, which has caused the destruction of natural ecosystems around the world. As you look around the store a daily question comes to mind: What should I eat? Pollan changes this question to “What am I eating?” (p. 17). It’s scary that many people (myself included) do not know what is in the food we eat because we eat so much processed food. The truth is, the food we eat is derived from corn. Corn is in everything from the food we eat to what feeds our food and what fuels food production. This plant has colonized the world with the help of people through agriculture. Pollan takes us through the history of corn and how it has changed the world.

Pollan starts with the farmers. We are introduced to the life of a farmer named George Naylor. It is interesting to get a look into the life of the people that feed the world by growing corn. It is sad that these farmers support and feed strangers, but cannot afford to feed themselves (p 34). They are going broke by growing so much corn, but still measure their success by how much they can produce. This shows the consequences that a lack of knowledge can have on the lives of people. It is also interesting to hear Naylor’s opinion on GMO crops (p. 36). He does not trust tampering with billions of years of evolution. Maybe we should trust his gut feeling because he has spent his whole life growing corn. I would hate to see a lack of knowledge for GMO crops to have serious and irreversible consequences on the human population.

Corn has slowly taken over the world by displacing other species. This is done by clearing natural landscapes for agriculture and by replacing the usefulness of other species on the farm. This could not be done without the help of people. People clear the landscape and plant the corn. People have helped further by supplementing corn with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. The invention of synthetic fertilizer has allowed the earth to support the enormous human population without limitations from the natural environment. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has changed the world’s biology because we are no longer relying on the environment to get food. We now convert petroleum and fossil fuels into food and provided the world with a surplus of nitrogen. This method of feeding the world is economically cheap, but environmentally costly. It’s sad how the world works

Pollan moves on from farming by taking us on the journey that number 2 field corn takes before it enters our stomach as either meat or processed food. I did not know that there were different varieties of corn for different uses, but it only makes sense. Instead of following the path of corn we follow one steer, #534, from the farm he was born. I can relate to the young steer at this stage because I have held a newborn calf on a range here in Kamloops (Figure 1). It is sad to hear that beyond this point, #534’s (or Arthur’s) live is devalued to feed the growing human population. You will never question a vegetarian’s choice after reading this chapter. The steer, #534, will live its life in its own waste, being forcefully fed corn, drugs, supplements, and antibiotics. Then, to top it off its life is cut short to be serves to us on a plate. I agree with Pollan, “eating industrial meat tales almost a heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting” (p. 84).

Figure 1. A newborn steer named Arthur. Born on a local ranch.

Pollan then takes us through the processing plant where corn becomes unrecognizable to become many of the compounds in our food. By the end of the process, “[t]here’s no corn left” (p. 90). It is funny how we strip all of the goodness out of corn then supplement the lost nutrients because our food “has less to do with nutrition or taste than with economics” (p. 93).

The human population has learned to eat processed, industrial foods and at the same time is ingesting more calories at higher densities. This problem has lead to today’s world epidemic, which is obesity. Obesity is a problem faced all around the world. Some people are starving while others are ingesting an access of calories.

I enjoyed reading Pollan’s book. He clearly put a lot of research into investigating the history of corn. I can say after reading this book, however, that I am no longer hungry.



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