Part I of “The Myth of the Grass-fed Pig” is here, previous posts related to Food, Inc. are here and here.
“The Evil of Corn” by Gary Taxali
Professor Seabury isn’t alone in thinking non-ruminants should be fed grass and only grass (although he’s probably rare among pig farmers who think so). The people at Castlemaine Farms, a small vegetable and poultry operation in North Carolina, got so sick of being asked if their chickens were 100% grass-fed that they posted the following on their blog:
The economics of animal agriculture are a little more complicated than grass=free and grain=$ (more about that another day), but I suspect the obsession with grass-fed animals has less to do with the economics of feed than it does with a two-part lesson a lot of readers absorb from The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc.: 1) corn is in everything—the contemporary American food system relies on corn’s uniquely efficient carbon-fixing system to produce historically-unprecedented food surpluses that they then turn into a dazzling array of products* and 2) that’s bad—nutritionally, ecologically, aesthetically, and morally. Or, as Troy Swain puts it even more succinctly, “Corn is Badass and Creepy”:
Page 2 in a 5-part series on The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Swain does a pretty good job of illustrating why corn is “badass,” but it’s sort of unclear why it’s “creepy.” That’s what I’ll try to explain in this entry—why would anyone think that it’s a bad thing for pigs and chickens to eat corn? Why are otherwise seemingly-sane people convinced that eating corn on the cob or popcorn at the movies is some kind of transgression—something they should avoid or feel guilty about? What drives cornphobia?
*For Adorno & Horkheimer fans: this seems a lot like the argument that the Culture Industry produces what appears to be wide range of options, creating the illusion of democratic choice and individuality, but they’re really all the same. Actually, there are dozens of parallels between “The Culture Industry” and Omnivore’s Dilemma, but that’s not the most blog-friendly tangent.
First, a look at the “reasons” that cornphobes themselves give for avoiding corn, none of which make any sense, so I’m calling them “un-reasons.” These all come from the most stunning example of cornphobia I’ve come across—an e-mail exchange between the editors at Gourmet magazine (RIP) about whether it would be a good idea to do a summer feature on sweet corn. The Online Editor started the thread:
Christy Harrison: A couple folks here in the web area are saying they now tend to avoid corn, even at the farmers market, because of all the negative press lately around industrially processed corn (and because they figure they already get enough corn in their diets in processed food). So I wanted to see what you guys think: Do you avoid buying fresh corn because it’s in so much processed food (or for other reasons)? Or do you think that’s silly and the distinction between farmers market corn and Big Corn is obvious? I’m trying to see if there could be a larger story here.
Note that there’s no debate about whether “Big Corn” is evil—that’s apparently just commonsense in the world of Gourmet editors. The only question on the table is whether fresh corn purchased from a farmer’s market is also evil. In lieu of assigning someone to actually write an article about the potential “larger story” being sniffed out, they decided to just publish the replies, most of which essentially said, “yes, that’s silly.” However, a few people expressed reservations:
Un-Reason #1: It’s Nutritionally Worthless
Azon Juan: I hear so much bad news about corn that I don’t see why I should eat it, and I’m positive it’s getting into my diet in other ways that I don’t know about. I think of corn as an unnecessary vegetable that doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value.
Juan seems to be rejecting the distinction between sweet corn and commodity corn, unless I missed some kind of “bad news” about corn on the cob. Although it’s true that people can and do survive without eating corn, which I guess makes it technically “unnecessary,” that seems like a strange allegation to make about one of the staple crops of most Native American diets and world’s third-largest food crop. I mean, sure, it’s hard to think of any single food that any single individual couldn’t survive without—as nutritious as kale might be, I’m sure lots of people live long, healthy lives without touching the stuff—but if there’s any food our entire food system can’t do without, it’s corn.
Nor is it clear what standards he’s using when he claims corn lacks “nutritional value.” Even if you don’t count carbohydrates as “nutrients,” a 1-cup serving of sweet corn contains over 15% of an adult’s RDA of vitamin B1, folate, dietary fiber, vitamin C, phosphorus, manganese, and vitamin B5 (according to WHFoods). It also provides 9 essential amino acids, which make a complete protein when combined with beans. In terms of calories and glycemic load, it’s comparable to sweet potatoes or brown rice, which are often portrayed as “health foods.” A 150 gram serving of corn contains 129 kcal and has an estimated glycemic load of 17; 150 grams of sweet potato contain 135 kcal and a GL of 17; 150 g brown rice has 167 kcal and a GL of 18 (according to Harvard Medical School and CalorieKing). Corn may not be the most nutrient-dense food available, but as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to believe it to be significantly less valuable than any other starchy vegetable or whole grain.
However, the nutritional content seems to be a secondary concern for Juan anyway. That’s merely corn’s lack of a saving grace. Something else seems to be responsible for making him think eating corn is worse than a missed opportunity to consume something nutritionally optimal, but instead something actively detrimental, something to avoid if at all possible. His sense that “it’s getting into my diet in other ways that I don’t know about” makes corn sound ominous, not just an “unnecessary vegetable,” but a dangerous contaminant.
Un-Reason #2: It’s Frankenfood
Juan notes that he also avoids HFCS and corn-fed beef (the two primary sources of corn-based calories in the U.S., which makes me wonder where he thinks rogue corn is sneaking into his diet—maltodextrin?) and concludes by saying that the only corn he consciously consumes is “the corn I can’t stay away from when I go to the movies,” implying that even that is a transgression he would resist if he could. Harrison picks up on that in her reply:
Christy Harrison: Yes, the whole popcorn thing—I have other friends who talk about having “corn guilt” when they eat popcorn, too. Or when they have fresh corn at someone’s house and then learn that it came from a big-box store (which I guess means it might be full of pesticides or could have been shipped from far away). To some extent it really is guilt by association, because most of the “bad” corn is in processed foods, not in fresh corn. But there is plenty of genetically modified sweet corn around, too (the kind that you eat on the cob)—and you can’t just assume that your local farmer doesn’t use GMO seed, because some small-scale farmers do.
So on the one hand, Harrison admits that feeling guilty about eating popcorn or fresh corn is irrational (although she confusingly conflates people feeling “guilty” about eating corn with corn being “guilty”—whether it’s truly “bad” or just has the misfortune of being related to the true villain). But then she tries to offer one last defense of sweet corn avoidance by raising the specter of genetic engineering.
There may be good reasons to be concerned about GMO foods. It’s true that seed patents have been wielded like weapons against farmers who want to store seed from one harvest to plant the next year or who happen to farm downwind from someone who uses GMO seed and end up with some of it growing in their fields. It’s also true that we don’t yet know all the possible risks of moving genes across species for human health or for the environment. On the other hand, GMO foods might also be healthier or more environmentally sustainable—rice with genes borrowed from carrots could offer a cheap source of vitamin A for malnourished populations, herbicide-resistant crops could reduce the need for tilling and help preserve topsoil, and etc. Either way, it’s not at all clear why the fact that some small-scale farmers grow genetically modified corn would make all corn evil.
The threat of GMO sweet corn is a red herring that Harrison invokes to take advantage of the vague dread they inspire, which is based less on facts or reason than an emotional response many people have to the idea of scientists tinkering with food at the level of its DNA. She’s basically saying: maybe people are justified in having a vague, irrational dread about corn because they have a vague, irrational dread about GMOs. Like Juan’s claims about corn’s nutritional worthlessness, that’s just a flimsy justification for cornphobia, not the real cause.
Un-Reason #3: It’s Somehow Related to Global Warming or Scary Agricultural Practices
The most perplexing replies came from Food Editor Ian Knauer:
Ian Knauer: The farmer that takes hay from us in PA also farms corn in nearby farms. They no longer plow or rotate crops. They harvest the corn in the fall, then mow down the stalks to a foot high. They inject the soil with nitrogen and other chemicals. The fields sit like that, skeletonized, all winter. In the spring they inject new corn seed and do it again. Nothing else will grow in the fields; no weeds, no wild grasses, nothing…
(After being asked if the corn is for human consumption:) I believe the corn this farmer grows is for ethanol production. But that’s not the point. On a related and somewhat ironic side note, I met an organic-heirloom corn farmer in Mexico who told me that in his lifetime, the corn he grows has been affected by climate change. 25 years ago it took 15 days to ripen; now it takes eight.
Knauer doesn’t ever say what exactly is the point of describing the nitrogen-dependent, weed-free production of corn for ethanol. And I’m not entirely sure how global warming-accelerated corn ripening is either “related” to the safety or desirability of sweet corn or “ironic.” Instead, what this seems like to me is Knauer attempting to justify his vague sense that corn is bad by gesturing to any kind of scary-sounding, “unnatural,” sterile, unsustainable-looking thing he can think of, whether it has anything at all to do with edible sweet corn or not.
The Real Reason?: The Leap from “It’s Everywhere!” to “It’s Evil!”
Okay, confession time: it’s not just the fact that none of the reasons cited by the cornphobes in the Gourmet e-mail exchange make any sense that makes me think cornphobia is essentially a hysterical response to Michael Pollan. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of a former cornphobe, myself. After my first encounter with Pollan in the NYTimes Magazine, I was freaked out enough to start checking labels for HFCS. For about a year, I even avoided niblets.
Pollan never actually advises readers to stop eating corn, nor does he say that sources of whole corn are bad. He acknowledges that descendants of the Maya sometimes refer to themselves as “the corn people” because it’s such a central part of their diets Nevertheless, the reason Troy Swain can summarize the first section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma as “Corn is Badass and Creepy” is because Pollan definitely implies that the prevalence of corn in contemporary American diets, largely in the form of processed foods, is a bad thing. For one, he says, we are even more corn dependent than Mexicans:
The higher the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in a person’s flesh, the more corn has been in his diet—or in the diet of the animals he or she ate….Researchers who have compared the isotopes in the flesh or hair of North Americans to those in the same tissues of Mexicans report that it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn. (Omnivore’s p. 19-23)
But so what? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Well, says Pollan, that depends:
If where you stand is in agribusiness, processing cheap corn into forty-five different McDonald’s items is an impressive accomplishment. It represents a solution to the agricultural contradictions of capitalism, the challenge of increasing food industry profits faster than America can increase its population….
If where you stand is on one of the lower rungs of America’s economic ladder, our cornified food chain offers real advantages: not cheap food exactly (for the consumer ultimately pays the added cost of processing), but cheap calories in a variety of attractive forms. In the long run, however, the eater pays a high price for these cheap calories: obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease. (Omnivore’s p. 117)
That passage (and the myriad other places this argument has appeared since, including Food, Inc., King Corn, Pollan’s subsequent books and a thousand blog and message board posts) is what I believe to be the real origin of cornphobia. Pollan vilifies corn as merely a source of “cheap calories” (“nutritionally worthless" anyone?) and claims the corn-dependent food system is defensible only if you’re a greedy capitalist who can pass on the “hidden costs” of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease to the consumer.
But We Like “Cheap Calories”
I don’t mean this in a Vincent Vega, “Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good,” way—cheap calories may often be good-tasting, but more relevant for Pollan’s argument is the fact they are often ecologically more efficient than “expensive calories.”
The real irony is that elsewhere Pollan celebrates “cheap calories.” His “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables” mantra and his campaign for "sun food agriculture" are partly a liberal elite brand of weight-loss advice/anti-obesity campaign, but they’re also a prescription for eating “low on the food chain” for the sake of the environment. In the passage I just quoted from Omnivore’s, he goes on to say that from the perspective of people on the “lower end of the world’s economic ladder,” the corn-dependent American diet is “unconscionable” and an “unalloyed disaster,” largely based on the efficiency argument for vegetarianism.
But as Pollan argues, corn is a uniquely efficient plant—no other food can produce as many calories as fast on a given plot of fertile soil with ample sun. According to that logic, if you were trying to eat with optimal efficiency and you lived in an area with ample plots of fertile soil, you would still want to avoid corn-fed beef, but you might actually want to eat as much corn as humanly possible—which, in light of the traditional Meso-American idea that humans are “corn walking,” would seem to be quite a lot.
Conclusion: The Omnivore’s Delusion?
Pollan accuses “us” (a sneaky word that clearly doesn’t include him) of confusing “corn-the-food” with “corn-the-commodity” (Omnivore’s p. 58), a confusion he seems to want to clear up. What seems significant to me about cornphobia and the myth of grass-fed pigs and chickens is that they suggest that at least for some readers, he failed. Instead of convincing them that there are “subtle but crucial” distinctions in the kinds and uses of corn, he merely shifts their confusion from the mistaken belief that all corn is innocent to the equally-flawed belief that all corn is evil. And I hesitate to call this a simple misinterpretation because:
1) It’s so widespread—just look at the art in this entry, almost all of which I’m certain was inspired by Pollan. It even affects people deeply involved in the topic, who ought to know better, like the co-creators of King Corn, a deeply Pollan-inspired documentary. While touring to promote the film, Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney went on a corn-free diet and exhorted others to take the “corn free challenge” (sweet corn was exempt, corn-fed pork and chicken was not). Afterwards, Curt was disappointed to find that his “corn carbon” content had only dropped from 52% to 39% and Culinate published the following exchange with the scientist who tested him:
Curt: Have you ever tested anyone who didn’t have a corn signal at all?
Dr. Macko: Well, there was Oetzi the Iceman. There was no corn in Europe 5,000 years ago, no C4 grasses at all, so he didn’t have any corn.
Dr. Macko: He’s your aspiration. You want to be Oetzi.
Even though there’s no reason why being 39% or 52% or hell, even 99% “corn carbon” would necessarily be a bad thing.
2) It accurately reflects the emotional tenor of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. if not their precise argument. People come away from the book and the film thinking they’ve been “enlightened,” when really, they’ve just been scared.
The panic about HFCS, the idea that farmers feeding grain to pigs and chickens are “doing something wrong” (and the occasional arrogance to insist on it even when farmers point out that pigs & chickens can’t survive on grass alone), the idea that corn on the cob and popcorn are transgressions against the new Church of Food—these are symptoms of a subculture of eaters who aren’t more “conscious,” they’re just more hysterical.