Chapter 2 Summary
In “The Farm,” Michael Pollan tells the story of George Naylor, a corn farmer from Iowa, to illustrate the impact that corporate industry, government policy, and technological innovation have on the production of corn. He discovers that corn is being grossly overproduced—to the detriment of the American farmer but to the benefit of corporations and grain exporters. Ironically, it has come to the point that it costs a dollar more to produce corn than it does to sell it. George Naylor is able to produce twice as much corn per acre as his father could, who in turn could have said the same thing about his own father. However, in spite of these impressive yields, Naylor and many other farmers struggle to make ends meet.
Pollan marvels at the technological innovations that have been made in agriculture but cautions that American agriculture relies on an ecological subsidy that requires a considerable amount of energy derived from fossil fuels. Pollan suggests that synthetic nitrogen, invented by Fritz Haber at the start of the twentieth century, is the most important invention of the twentieth century and that much of the world would face starvation without it. Synthetic nitrogen allows farmers to give their soil necessary nitrogen—although Pollan points out that the process actually requires fossil fuels to create the synthetic nitrogen. Consequently, although these crops once relied exclusively on solar energy to grow, they now rely on fossil fuels. More recently, scientists have begun to increase crop yields at the genetic level, which allows a greater number of corn stalks to grow in proximity to each other, which in turn improves the annual yield.
Pollan introduces George Naylor’s “Naylor Curve.” The economics of supply and demand seem to fail to apply to agriculture because the demand will be constant no matter what happens in the economy. However, since the 1970s and the policies of Richard Nixon, farmers have been required to “go big” to survive. Pollan explains that the result has been an increase in the production of corn. Ironically, according to Naylor’s curve, this drives down the price of corn, which benefits corporations like Cargill and Coca-Cola as well as consumers who need corn to feed their livestock or their families—but the only way farmers can pay their bills is to produce more corn, which in turn drives down the price. Meanwhile, the government subsidizes farmers to continue producing exorbitant amounts of corn. It seems that the industrial food chain has led to a perversion of the nitrogen cycle, agriculture, and perhaps the diet of America.