This is one of the main tropes to have emerged about corn from the pages of Omnivore’s Dilemma since its publication, and one which it seems we’ll be stuck with for a while. Indeed it’s hard to read a food blog or a major newspaper food section nowadays without coming across at least one instance in which a conventional agricultural product is described as being “soaked in oil”. What does that mean? Well it’s a metaphor, one that represents one of Michael Pollan’s main indictments of conventionally raised corn.
Of course, corn isn’t watered with oil. It isn’t planted with oil, it isn’t fertilized with oil, it isn’t processed with oil. In fact at no point in the life cycle of a corn plant does it come into contact with petroleum. So what, then, does Pollan mean when he says that corn and corn-derived foods are “soaked in oil”? He means of course that the machines we use to plant, fertilize, harvest and transport corn run on petroleum.
That is indisputably true. But then so do the machines that are used to plant, fertilize, harvest and transport soybeans. Or carrots. Or organic buckwheat, or heart-healthy iron-rich baby greens. In fact there isn’t much in our modern-day society that isn’t “soaked in oil” by Pollan’s standard. The coffee that I’m drinking at the moment, and for that matter the cup. The keyboard I’m typing on, the glasses I’m wearing. All the bricks that make up my office, the window panes in its walls, and pretty much everything I can see out of them: the grass in my lawn, my dogwood hedge, the sidewalk, my new brick patio, my charcoal grill. In fact the only thing that I can see that isn’t swimming in a giant, Pollanean pool of petroleum is the giant 80-year-old black cherry tree on my fence line (which I’d better do something about before it falls on my oil-soaked house). My two-year-old daughter is positively dripping in oil, which is going to give her mother fits because that’s a brand new dress she wearing.
The entire notion that any one food crop is any more “soaked in oil” than any other is completely ridiculous. I can think of a lot of things that require more oil than a field of corn — the jet that flew Mr. Pollan around on his book-signing tour to name just one. It is a fact of life — in fact it is one of the immutable laws of the universe — that work requires energy. Planting crops takes energy, harvesting them takes energy, transporting them takes energy, hell even eating them takes energy. For all but the latter, it’s true that the energy input we use today is largely derived from oil. Pollan is right on that count, and it’s fair to debate whether or not that’s a good thing in the ultimate sense. But singling out corn as any special consumer of oil is deeply disingenuous and profoundly misleading.