Friday, May 09, 2008

People of Corn

An inadvertent birthday present for the LumpenProf:

I've just started reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I've enjoyed his opening riff that the real people of corn are no longer the Maya, but those of us who live in the US and subsist on an industrialized monoculture diet based almost solely on processed corn. Pollan writes:

When I started trying to follow the industrial food chain – the one that now feeds most of us most of the time and typically culminates either in a supermarket or fast-food meal – I expected that my investigations would lead to a wide variety of places. And though my journeys did take me to a great many states, and covered a great many miles, at the end of these food chains (which is to say, at the very beginning) I invariable found myself in exactly the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt. The great edifice of variety and choice that is the American supermarket turns out to rest on a remarkably narrow biological foundation comprised of a tiny group of plants that is dominated by a single species: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn.

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia, and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Head over to the processed food and you find ever more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of a nugget's other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget "fresh" can all be derived from corn.

To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the 1980s virtually all of the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you'd still be drinking corn, in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from corn. (17-18)
That even beer has been sucked into the corn-industrial-complex seems like adding insult to injury. What ever happened to those German purity laws of 1516 where: "the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water" and that "Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities' confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail." Surely there are some authorities out there who would love to confiscate all the barrels of Budweiser some weekend to protect the sanctity of our beer.

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