Chapter 3 Summary
In the first chapter, “The Plant: Corn’s Conquest,” Michael Pollan sets out to trace the industrial food chain back from the products he finds in the supermarket. In “The Farm,” he manages to find where many of those foods are produced. However, by the time he reaches “The Elevator,” he discovers the impossibility of his task. Pollan makes a distinction between a farmer’s bushels of corn and corn as a fungible commodity. As much as Pollan might wish to trace George Naylor’s corn to its final destination, it is mixed with corn from numerous other farmers (each of whom may have a uniquely created or hybrid strand of corn) at the elevator before it is shipped to a variety of locations.
Corn was not always so abstract, nor was it always so ubiquitous. Pollan notes that up to 1850, corn was stored in and shipped in bags that contained the farmer’s address. The buyer would pay for the corn only after inspecting it upon arrival. However, the Chicago Board of Trade instituted a grading system in 1856, which allows buyers to ignore who produces the corn and which also invites farmers to ignore any objective in growing corn except yield or, in Pollan’s words, “the quality of sheer quantity.” When Pollan arrives at the elevator, he discovers piles of excess corn on the ground and discovers that there is a colossal surplus of corn being produced by America’s extremely efficient farmers. Pollan concludes:
Moving that mountain of cheap corn...has become the principal task of the industrial food system, since the supply of corn vastly exceeds the demand.
From an ecological perspective, there is a surplus of biomass that nature must be forced to absorb. Pollan suggests that factory farming, obesity in America, and the prevalence of food poisoning are all indirect consequences of this system.
Pollan points out that a government subsidy pays farmers for their corn, so much so that the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays about nineteen billion dollars each year to farmers. Pollan notes that the farmers are blamed for this subsidy, but the beneficiaries of this policy are companies, represented by Cargill and ADM. These two companies, Pollan notes, sell fertilizer and pesticides, and they operate most of America’s grain elevators. Pollan also suggests that they
help write many of the rules that govern this whole game, for Cargill and ADM exert considerable influence over U.S. agricultural policies.
Pollan next asks, where does all of the corn go? Although Pollan cannot follow Naylor’s corn, he can follow the commodity to its next step. Naylor notes that three fifths of America’s corn ends up on the factory farm, where cattle are fattened for slaughter. Ironically, cattle have never eaten corn, but
Nature abhors a surplus, and the corn must be consumed. Enter the corn-fed American steer.
With this, Pollan is ready to move on from “The Elevator” to the next link in the industrial food chain.