Chapter 1 Summary
In “The Plant: Corn’s Conquest,” Michael Pollan begins his first investigation into what he calls the “industrial food chain.” Most American consumers get their food from the supermarket, and Pollan uses several examples to discuss how far removed the supermarket—with its air conditioning, florescent lighting, and “machine-lathed” baby carrots—is from the natural world. By the time Pollan’s exploration of the supermarket reaches Pop-Tarts and Twinkies, it seems that he has established the need to investigate where these “foods” come from.
Although the American supermarket appears to offer a wide variety of foods—a representation of biodiversity—his investigation yields a surprising result. Corn, or Zea mays, is in nearly everything. It can be eaten as corn, it can be fed to livestock, and it has many derivative products that few realize have their base in corn. To illustrate his point, Pollan invites his readers to consider the chicken nugget. The chicken itself is fed corn. Cornstarch can be found in the glues that hold a chicken nugget together, corn flour is used in the batter, and corn oil is used to fry the nugget. Moreover, most soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. It seems that corn is a part of us, and Pollan actually explains that scientists are able to track the amount of carbon in the average American body that comes from corn. It has come to the point that Americans rely more on corn than the Mayans did, so much so that Pollan refers to the American public as “processed corn, walking.” If people are what they eat, then it seems that corn has indeed conquered the American body.
Ironically, when Europeans and the Native Americans first met, the Europeans valued wheat at their staple crop. However, they soon discovered that a single kernel of corn would return far more kernels than wheat. Since then, Americans have been planting more and more corn. Pollan points out that Zea mays is especially easy to cross pollinate to create hybrid crops. Hybrids often combine the strengths of two types of corn to produce a superior crop. Until recently, the ease with which these strands of corn were cross-pollinated was a difficulty for corporations to control. Eventually, a hybrid was discovered that produced a superior yield in the first generation (or F-1) and an inferior yield in the second, creating what Pollan refers to as
the biological equivalent of a patent. Corn was now ready for corporate attention.