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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Corn Nation

I just started reading Michael Pollan's 2006 book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I was fascinated by his later book, In Defense of Food, which I read a while ago and hungered (pun intended) for more.  (You can read my blogs about that book starting here.  It goes on for a number of entries.)

I'm not going to do a "book report" like I did with that book, but I thought I'd share some interesting items as I proceed through this book.

Most of what I've read so far has to do with corn and corn's immense effect on this country's food culture--economically, industrially, nutritionally.

Corn originally became popular in this country with the Native Americans (and eventually, early settlers), who used corn in every way possible--fresh, dried for cornmeal, fermented.  Husks were woven or used as food for livestock.  Cobs were burned for heat.

But as time passed, corn began to take over our farmland.  After World War II, there was an excess of ammonium nitrate, which was used to make explosives for the war.  It was discovered that it could be used as a great fertilizer and it was spread throughout the corn fields of the Midwest.  This, along with the development of hybrid varieties, allowed more corn to be planted per acre.  Soon, most other crops were pushed out--not to mention animals and eventually, people, whose residential land was being turned into farmland.

It used to be that Mexicans ate the most corn per person on earth.  It is a staple of their diet and has been for centuries.  But today, it's the people of the US who are the biggest corn consumers.  In the approximately 45,000 items in a supermarket, about 1/4 of them are some derivative of corn--everything from beef that's fed on corn to the many forms of corn syrup (in everything from bread to soda to cereals) to the packaging of processed foods to toothpaste and diapers and trash bags and batteries and....you get the idea.

When many of us think of Iowa, we think of corn.  But Iowa farms in the past grew much more than corn.  They raised a huge variety of fruits and vegetables and animals.  A farm family could be self-sufficient--eating their crops, raising their animals on those crops, etc.--and could sell the excess.  Today, 80% of Iowa's food is imported to the state.  Why?  Because these farms have become solely corn farms.  Many of them beholden to the huge food companies that control them and the government subsidies that help the farmers survive.

It's this "industrial food" that Pollan sees as the downfall of the American food culture.  We don't know what we're eating much of the time or where it comes from.  Big Food works constantly to convince us to eat their products using labels meant to deceive.  This has changed our food culture so much that it's hard to imagine it ever changing back.
So violent a change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder.  Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.  But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals"--or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid."  A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January.  It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonization of another.  It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines.  It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars of feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day.  And it surely would not be nearly as fat.  

That is the crazy thing about the American food culture.  People are obsessed with eating "healthy" and diets  and fads, but are still some of the most unhealthy people on earth.

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