Why do we grow corn? I mean, I don’t eat a whole lot of corn on the cob. Do we really need that much? It’s a fair question, for indeed worldwide, we grow a ton of corn. More than a ton, in fact, much more. 700 million metric tons according to recent UN figures, with about 300 million metric tons of it grown right here in the USA. It is, by a considerable margin, the world’s most popular grain.
But the question is: why? One answer is because corn delivers up more calories per acre than any other grain, indeed any other food or feed crop. With today’s high-yield farming techniques a single acre of planted corn can yield over ten thousand pounds of food. And that’s amazing, no matter what you think of conventional farming. Corn is also easy to grow. Sure it has a low tolerance for cold, but it’s hardy, can get by without terribly much water, and is relatively undemanding of the soil it’s grown in. In fact just three percent of what makes up a corn plant comes from the soil. The other 97%, if you include water, comes literally out of thin air. No wonder then that corn has been such a boon to starving regions of the world. It is truly the greatest of all of the agricultural gifts that the New World gave to the old.
So OK then, corn is a prolific, easy-to-grow calorie producer. Does it have anything else going for it? Indeed so. For it is a cereal grain, and as longtime readers of Joe Pastry know, cereal grains are rich repositories of starch, which they store in almost completely pure form in the region of the kernel known as the endosperm. So what’s so great about starch? you may ask. Well as you may recall from other posts on the subject, starches (a.k.a. carbohydrates) are long-chain molecules made from simple sugars. In their natural state they have hundreds of possible uses. Dissected into their component parts, they have literally thousands more, as Mr. Pollan so eloquently summarizes in Omnivore’s Dilemma:
Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food, and provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you’ll find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HCFS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn. Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheese Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressing and the vitamins and even the vitamins. (Yes, it’s in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. This goes for the nonfood items as well: Everything from toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleaners, charcoal briquettes, matches and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn…in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce’s perfection, even in the coating on cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed the supermarket itself—the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built—is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.
Pollan clearly hopes his readers will find this shocking. Rather counter-intuitive for a fellow you’d think would be into renewables. I mean, what would he prefer these items — most of which we all need or use to some degree in our lives — were made from, petrochemical derivatives? In fact the more you dig into this passage, the more you get the distinct impression that the big problem Mr. Pollan has is with modernity itself. But more on that later.
Speaking for myself, I find nothing objectionable here and everything commendable, just more examples of human ingenuity at work. Does that mean I’m some sort of unhinged processed food fanatic? No. Am I in love with military-industrial complex? No. Am I going to go and try to literally eat my corner grocery store? No. However it does mean that I stand in thrall at how amazingly useful and versatile a thing like a starch molecule can be. And while starches of various types can be harvested from a wide variety of plants, nowhere can they be had as abundantly and economically as they can in a kernel of corn.
More on that tomorrow…