Humans of the Corn

Pollan, M.. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The Penguin Group, New York, New York. P15-119.

Pollan’s, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” tackles another side of food production not seen in, “The Botany of Desire.” This book starts off with discussing the history of corn showing the reader the beginnings of corn consumption in Mexico by the Maya, to modern day use of corn. He also discusses in part I of his book, “Industrial Corn,” the effects corn has had on the meat industry as well as on human health. “The Botany of Desire,” argues that the plants that thrive in a human dominant world are the ones that have evolved fast enough to keep up with us, not because we chose them. After reading part I of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it is hard to disagree with Pollan in how much corn has shaped our history, government policies and health.

Pollan begins his discussion on corn by introducing George Naylor into his book, a corn farmer. By doing so, Pollan gives humanity and identity to corn farmers which makes it easier to relate to. On page 24, Pollan paints a picture of what the Naylor farm used to look like when his grandfather first started the family business. “There would be a fair amount of corn then too, but also fruits and other vegetables, as well as oats, hay and alfalfa to feed the pigs, cattle, chickens, and horses – horses being the tractors of that time.” In only two generations, this beautiful, diverse farm was converted to a farm that only produces corn and soy, the fate of many farms across America. This transition from highly diverse farms to land producing only one or two crops reminded me of a paper I read last week in Conservation Biology. The paper, “Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in North America Midwest,” by Grixti et al. (2008) states that one of the reasons bees have been declining in number is because of this loss of diversity in farms (among an endless list of other reasons). A result of the declining bee population is a decrease in yield of crops. This is a reminder of the connectedness of nature and that every action has a reaction.

After discussing the importance of metaphors and first and last sentences in Plants and People class the other week, I found I was unknowingly looking for these in Pollan’s writing. My search did not last long as the first sentences I read on page 15 said, “Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American Supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature. And yet what is this place if not a landscape (man-made, it’s true) teeming with plants and animals?” Wow. What an attractive introduction. He is able to paint a picture of your typical supermarket and remind us what it truly is. A supermarket isn’t simply a place to get food to feed your family, it is filled with the products of nature meant to satisfy our hunger. Another last sentence I found had a high impact was on page 26 when he says, “Corn is the protocapitalist plant.” This is such a bold sentence because, in my opinion, Pollan is stating that the corn industry was the stepping stone for capitalism. The final last sentence I would like to bring up is found on page 119 after Pollan’s family visit to McDonald’s. “And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full.” This McDonald’s meal consisted of about half corn products and 4,510 calories. A meal designed to satisfy the Homo Sapiens desire for energy rich foods and the food industry’s desire to provide food that is cheap to make and tasty yet unsatisfying so we always have room for more corn rich food.

Pollan’s, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” is another perspective shifting piece of work. The perfect mix between facts and storytelling makes Pollan’s books an easy yet educational read. Corn has changed our farmers. It has also become a decision maker in federal policy making to ensure it continues to be produced at the volumes it currently is. And last, but not least, it has changed the way we eat. Corn has infiltrated our history, government and bodies which is why I would argue that corn is one of the most successful organisms on the planet. In the words of Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”


Grixti, J.C., L.T. Wong, S.A. Cameron, C. Favret. 2008. Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in North American Midwest. Biological Conservation 142: 75-84.

Humans of the Corn

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