The Timber Analogy

The thing I love so much about the paragraph from Omnivore’s Dilemma I quoted earlier is the insinuation that the sheer versatility of corn somehow makes it bad. As though processed foods, consumer packaged goods, and ugly retail architecture would all just disappear — or better still, would never even have been invented — if it weren’t for bloody corn. The reality of course is that in a market economy demand drives production, not the other way around. Which means all those things would still be here without corn, their component parts would just be made from lots of other things. And that would be a shame, since the ability to derive so many useful things from a single source is not only efficient and cheap, it’s far better for the environment.

Let’s take wood as an example. Just like starch, wood has any number of uses. In its unadulterated state we build with it, burn it, make furniture out of it, and tacky chainsaw art. Yet there are quite a few other things we can make out of its primary component, cellulose. Paper is only the most obvious of these. Cellulose is also used to make clothing, animal feed, plastic, glue, photographic film, insulation, explosives, paint, waterproof coatings and artificial muscles for robots (who knew?). It’s also used as a food ingredient, notably as an emulsifier and thickener.

Like starch, cellulose is found widely in nature. It’s a basic architectural component of pretty much every plant-based thing: grasses, lawn weeds like nutsedge (which is driving me crazy at the moment) shrubs, bushes, fruits and vegetables, you get the idea. Now, to harvest the cellulose we’d need to make a piece of clothing, a bomb or a nice thick bowl of soup, we could go around collecting it from lots of small plants and shrubs, using lots of different vehicles (all of them fuel-burning) and assorted redundant processing facilities (all of them electricity-consuming) — or, we could just harvest one nice big tree from a tree farm.

This is pretty much the situation we find ourselves in with corn. Yes, we could go around collecting all the starch we need to make, well, everything, from all sorts of other, less prolific food plants. But if we can get all that raw material from a single source, one that’s reliable, renewable, easy and inexpensive to grow, that’s a whole heck of a lot better for us, and a whole lot better for the planet. Pollan damns corn for its primary virtue: of delivering up to us, in abundance, a raw material that’s as basic to our food system as wood is to our building, printing and miniature flying robot-making industries. Does that make sense to you? Not to me. As they say in the world of used car advertising: that’s not a drawback, it’s a feature.

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