OPEN UNIVERSITY JUNE 12, 2007
by David A. Bell
Tim Flannery's piece "We're Living on Corn!" (subscription required) in the new New York Review, reviewing books by Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben, has some of the best black humor I've seen in a while (or perhaps it should just be called corny):
At the base of the national food chain is a single species of grass--corn--and its growth, processing, and sale constitute a titanic industry which is focused on increasing profits rather than health and well-being.
In America, foods as diverse as Gatorade, Ring Dings, and hamburgers have their beginning with corn. Indeed, huge factories transform its kernels into an almost unimaginable array of compounds. To illustrate how pervasive corn's influence is, Pollan gives us the example of the chicken nugget, which he says "piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn" (because the chickens are corn-fed), as does "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 [...] even the citric acid that keeps the nugget 'fresh' can be all derived from corn." So dominant has this giant grass become that of the 45,000-odd items in American supermarkets, more than one quarter contain corn. Disposable diapers, trash bags, toothpaste, charcoal briquettes, matches, batteries, and even the shine on the covers of magazines all contain corn. In America, all meat is also ultimately corn: chickens, turkeys, pigs, and even cows (which would be far healthier and happier eating grass) are forced into eating corn, as are, increasingly, carnivores such as salmon.
If you doubt the ubiquity of corn you can take a chemical test. It turns out that corn has a peculiar carbon structure which can be traced in everything that consumes it. Compare a hair sample from an American and a tortilla-eating Mexican and you'll discover that the American contains a far larger proportion of corn-type carbon. "We North Americans look like corn chips with legs," says one of the researchers who conducts such tests.