2 March 2007: Science Magazine

Looking Beyond Corn and Petroleum
Tobias Plieninger*

The Omnivore's Dilemma
A Natural History of Four Meals

by Michael Pollan

The Penguin Press, New York, 2006. 463 pp. $26.95, C$38. ISBN 9781594200823. Few North Americans would consider corn their staple food of choice. But a look at some figures suggests a different reality: cornfields cover around 330,000 km2 of U.S. farmland, corn production amounts to 430 million m3 per year, and one out of four supermarket items are based on corn. The only thing that seems more impressive than the extent to which corn has found its way into our food is the subtlety of this process. People do not directly consume most of their corn; instead, it appears as a component in the production of steaks, hamburgers, milk, soft drinks, snacks, and countless other foods. Recently, it has entered the production stream in another form, as the source of ethanol for fuel.

Figure 1 Endless rows of corn.

   In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan explores the food chains that link two biological systems, the soil and the human body, to address the question of what to eat. Noting the conflict between "neophilia" (the comfort of variety) and "neophobia" (the fear of ingesting anything new), he examines the pleasures and pains that flow from our having a wide range of diet options. Pollan (a professor of environmental and science journalism at the University of California, Berkeley) begins by describing America's "national eating disorder," manifest in "a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily." Using his personal experiences and a review of ecological and anthropological literatures, he tries to help orient disoriented consumers by tracing the origins of three dramatically different diets: the industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer diets. With the help of three protagonists--Iowa corn farmer George Naylor, Shenandoah Valley "grass farmer" Joel Salatin, and Italo-American food aficionado Angelo Garro--Pollan devotes each section of this multifaceted book to tracing a complete food chain from the earth to the plate.
   I particularly enjoyed the first chapter's comprehensive analysis of the political ecology of corn. Corn, the "keystone species of the industrial food chain," scored a triumph unchallenged in the plant world by both colonizing agricultural landscapes and inhabiting human bodies. It has become a basic commodity for animal feed, complex foods, fiber, and fuels. As Pollan shows, our interdependency with corn is so tightly woven that it seems a question whether we really have domesticated corn or whether corn has changed us to distribute its genes across the globe and to dedicate large areas of land to its cultivation--a thought that he elaborated on in his previous book, The Botany of Desire (1).
   The journey along the industrial food chain starts in a cornfield in Iowa, a state that has seen an astounding increase of agricultural productivity and efficiency over the last 100 years. Pollan notes that despite (or perhaps because of) corn yields increasing 10-fold since 1920, today's corn prices are consistently low. But he argues convincingly that this cheap corn comes at a steep price: farmers go bankrupt in the footrace to break even. When corn prices decrease, taxpayers bear the burden of the federal farm policy subsidizing corn production, while the environment has to endure land degradation and water pollution.
   At an important stopover on the way along the industrial food chain, corn is refined to meat. This occurs in places so different from the traditional understanding of a farm that a discrete term had to be invented: the confined animal feeding operation. These feedlots exhibit alarming parallels to a medieval city before the days of modern sanitation (with the exhaustive application of antibiotics being the main difference). They are highly efficient in the production of cheap meat. But again, Pollan presents a persuasive case that this meat is not cheap at all, if the societal costs (e.g., antibiotic resistance and the environmental costs of animal wastes) are considered.
   Another iconic strand of the industrial food chain that Pollan traces throughout the book is petroleum. We learn that U.S. agriculture, once fully dependent on the energy from the sun, has become so reliant on fossil fuels that it now takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of food. Nearly 20% of the current U.S. consumption of fossil fuels goes to the production and distribution of food.
   The author presents a variety of visions for alternative agriculture as countermeasures to the conventional corn- and petroleum-fed food chain. He outlines compelling advantages to a comprehensively sustainable, "pastoral" farming system for human health and the environment: Monocultures can be replaced by polycultures; soil nutrition can be derived from farm wastes instead of from imported fertilizer; entire agricultural systems can be oriented on biological rather than mechanical principles. However, the book leaves unanswered the crucial question of how alternative farming models can be scaled up to supply a growing and increasingly urbanized population.
It is clear from The Omnivore's Dilemma that Pollan favors more sustainable and nutritious agriculture, but he leaves the choice of food chains open to his readers--albeit he does not hide his preference for grass farming. He acknowledges that food consumption is a trade-off that one has to personalize according to one's ethical standards. However, that personal approach is complicated by the fact that the average consumer rarely has the information necessary to reach a carefully considered decision. Therefore Pollan argues in favor of the "right to look" and advocates shorter, less complex, and more visible food chains: "Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do."

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