King Corn
The Paul Revere of industrial agriculture sounds the alarm, but this time the invading enemy is not the Redcoats, it’s that tassel-waving, husk-cloaked “monstrous mutant grass Zea mays.”

A speech by Michael Pollan

Editor’s note: August 15, 2005, The following keynote address--following the food chain: The high cost of cheap food--was given at the 2005 25th anniversary Ecofarm conference in Asilomar, California. An edited transcription is reprinted here—in two parts—with the author’s generous permission.

""Corn is really getting the better of us at this point. We hand over land to it, we pamper it, we push out all other species from our farms, crushing biodiversity to help the corn, we overfeed it with fertilizer, we nuke its enemies, we stuff ourselves with it, all to advance the reign of corn over us."
Thanks very much. I brought some groceries. I’ll get to those in a second, but I did want to thank you for that warm welcome….I feel very welcome here. I’m happy to join your tribe, so thanks for including me.

You know when I was contemplating doing this, I also had this feeling of…a danger of bringing coals to New Castle here because the people in this room know so much more about this subject than I do. And one of the peculiar things that happens when you write is you’re often asked to talk to people who you learn from. Much of what I’ve written about the food system came from interviewing people in this room, so I sort of feel like …there’s a feedback loop here that I don’t totally understand. So I tried to focus on things that might be a little bit new to you, and rather than talk about how wonderful sustainable agriculture is, we’re going to…go to the dark side and talk a little bit about industrial agriculture. But in a way, it’s a cautionary tale. Because as different as ecological and industrial agriculture are, the temptations to repeat many of the mistakes of industrial agriculture are fierce, and many people are in danger, I think, of succumbing to the seductive logic of industrial thinking, which makes it all the more important, I think, to understand that logic.

So anyway, as you see, I brought some semi-seductive groceries and things. Like I have a Big Mac here; this is my water; a Slim Jim…These are Lunchables, this is Fun Fuel. I don’t know if anyone’s taken the time to read the ingredients, but it’s truly stunning. Fun Fuel. That’s an interesting concept. And I realized, though, as I was taking this to the register that if a bomb went off in this room, a lot more people would have to eat this kind of stuff.

Some French fries…some Coca Cola and some more Coca Cola, and a product of industrial organic agriculture: some organic Safeway milk. None of these were produced by Earthbound, by the way, just so you know.

I bought this to make a couple of points, and I’ll talk about these a little bit more later. The first is, and the obvious one; I greet you not as a farmer, not as really an expert of any kind, but as a consumer. My involvement with the food issue is mostly on the eating end of it, although I do a little bit of gardening. And the question I want to talk about a little bit is: What happens when you bring an ecological lens to these products? Because as all of you I think understand, what we eat really comprises our most profound connection to the natural world, and there are many different ways, many different food chains, that go from what we eat to the natural world. Our role in nature, like any other creature, is defined by what we eat and how we produce it. There’s an ecologist who once said, “All nature is a conjugation of the verb ‘to eat’ in both its active and passive forms.” We’re going to talk mostly about the active form. And in this we’re like all other animals with this one important exception: We reshape our food chains to a remarkable extent compared to other creatures. And there are good ways to do this and bad ways.

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"…If you are what you eat, and especially but not exclusively if you eat industrial food, like as we understand 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is corn."

Now it’s not quite true when I say I’m just an ordinary consumer, because I have been blessed by the New York Times and my book publisher to be able to act as something as a food detective over the last couple of years. And those of you who follow my work know that I’ve spent some time following a genetically modified potato through the food system, an organic TV dinner produced by Cascadian Farms, a steer. I told the life story of a steer that I bought from insemination to slaughter. And when I think about this, this is an interesting job description: “food detective.” I mean it’s a fairly modern one. I mean, it wasn’t very long ago that…you didn’t need a journalist to tell you where your food came from. So one of the good things about industrial food is it’s created this new job description for me.

But one of the things that’s really struck me is that so many of the food detective stories I’ve tried to tell—…this last year has been following a bushel of corn through the food system—what I kept finding in case after case, if you follow the food back to the farm, sort of like following the money during Watergate, what Woodward and Bernstein advised, if you follow the nutrients, if you follow the carbon, you end up in a corn field in Iowa, over and over and over again. So that’s what I want to talk about, is corn, and follow that particular cut through the industrial food system, because I’ve found that it explains an awful lot. It’s the keystone species of an industrial food system. That with its sidekick soybeans, you know, which shares a rotation within most of the farms in the Midwest. This monstrous mutant grass Zea mays.

Now…I’m going to kind of diss this plant, so I just want to offer a few words of praise for it, because I love corn; it’s marvelous, I like to eat corn, but what I’m really talking about… it’s an admirable plant in many ways although we know it’s greedy, those of us who try to grow it. I’m really talking about cheap corn; I’m talking about overproduced, subsidized, industrial corn…

Corn is, in America today, our biggest cash crop. Actually in terms of cash, marijuana is a little bit bigger…It’s our biggest… legal cash crop. It now covers an area of 80 million acres; that’s an area twice the size of New York State. It’s vast. This huge monoculture is covering most of the middle West and a lot of the rest of the country like a second great American lawn. Who’d have thought it really? I mean, this was of course the plant of the conquered people. You would have guessed after 1492 that this plant, like the people who grew it, would have been crushed. But in fact, the conquered people’s plant has conquered the conquerors. And I think it’s…the first big irony about corn. From its humble beginnings in Southern Mexico it has insinuated itself into our landscapes, into our food system, into our government, into our economy, and into our bodies.

…If you are what you eat, and especially but not exclusively if you eat industrial food, like as we understand 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is corn. That carbon in your body, is corn upon corn upon corn. All these products, as different as they appear, consist of carbon that was fixed in a cornfield. The sweetener in the soda, the meat in the Big Mac, but also the corn syrup in the bread in the Big Mac and the secret sauce which also has high fructose corn syrup, that Slim Jim if you read the ingredients, is full of high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, corn starch, a great many additives, and the Lunchables meal, for all of its four different fuels, all four of them are essentially corn based. Even the French fries are made from potatoes, it’s true, but odds are they’re fried in corn oil, and that’s where 50 percent of the calories in a McDonald’s box of French fries come from, is the oil. So even there you’re getting corn. Even in the salads at McDonald’s, you’re getting corn…They’re full of high fructose corn syrup and various thickeners that are made from corn. This is not just an assertion, or it’s an assertion that’s susceptible to scientific proof….

"And when I think about this, this is an interesting job description: "food detective." I mean it’s a fairly modern one. I mean, it wasn’t very long ago that…you didn’t need a journalist to tell you where your food came from."
I’m teaching now at Berkeley, and one of the wonderful things about being on a campus is you meet scientists who have access to things like mass spectrometers, and I was talking to Ignacio Chapela, who some of you know I think, and I was telling him my theory that in fact at this point Americans are more…you know, the Mexicans call themselves the people of corn, well, at this point we’re more the people of corn than the Mexicans are. And how is this? Well, they eat so many tortillas, how can that be? Well in fact they still fatten their cattle on grass, or did until very recently, and they still sweeten their sodas with sugar: cane sugar. And Ignacio said, “Well you know you can prove that.” And I said, “How?” And he said, “Well you should go talk to Todd Dawson who has the mass spectrometer in the integrated biology lab.” And I went to him, and what you can do, and I didn’t realize this, is...I could take a slip of hair or a fingernail and put it in his machine and he could tell me, within a fairly high degree of precision, how much of the carbon in that, in me, came from corn and how much came from other species. He could do the same, and in fact he is doing it for a student of mine, with all these products. He’s going to take a slice through that hamburger, he’s going to take the soda, and he’ll tell us how much of that is corn.

So we are what we eat. And what we’re getting through all these kind of indirect ways, since corn is such an amazing plant that can be broken down and reassembled as a sweetener, as a starch, as a, you know, whatever we want, it’s coming from corn. Even the chicken nugget is all corn.

So the question is: How did corn get this big? Well, it really is the great winner in the dance of domestication between at least Americans and the plants that we rely on. If you’ve read Botany of Desire (Random House, 2002) you know a little bit about how this works, which is that I believe very strongly that domestication is a two-way street and that the plants are working on us as much as we’re working on them. And the way the process works, essentially, is that they seduce us, plants, in the same way they seduce bumblebees and pollinators in general, to come and collect their genes and move them around the world. They do the same thing; a certain group of plants hit on a brilliant strategy to exploit this big-brained mammal with a propensity for travel and an ability to use tools.

And so by putting out various qualities that we like, by gratifying our desires for sweetness, for beauty, for intoxication, for food, we do a lot of work for these plants. They give up their ability, in this process, to take care of themselves to a large extent. Corn, you know, is dead without us at this point because of the husk, which is a very maladaptive thing if you’re trying to spread your seed. Without us to open those husks and separate those kernels of corn, that’s it. When we vanish from the planet, corn will too very shortly. So there’s a mutual dependence.

However, I would argue that corn, compared to some of these other plants that I wrote about it in my book—which is the tulip and the apple and marijuana and the potato—corn is really getting the better of us at this point. It’s kind of gone overboard. We hand over land to it, we pamper it, we push out all other species from our farms, crushing biodiversity to help the corn, we overfeed it with fertilizer, we nuke its enemies, we stuff ourselves with it, all to advance the reign of corn over us.

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"It’s also kind of the biggest, fattest child to come out of this post-war marriage between chemicals and hybrids."

So why this plant though? What about it allowed it to thrive? I’m going to be brief through this part. It is incredibly productive. The way they use to measure productivity in a grain a couple hundred years ago was how many seeds did you get if you plant one seed? In corn you plant one, you can get three hundred seeds. And they’re big seeds. So it’s very productive, it always has been to some extent. It’s highly adaptive; this is a plant that mutates very easily, and it has learned how to survive just about wherever we go. Short season, long season, short day, long day, it can do it. And that’s why it was able to move from southern Mexico to cover so much of the world.

It’s also the perfect capitalist plant, when you think about it; it gives you a food immediately in the green stage, but then it turns itself as it dries into a commodity that you can store and trade. So it lends itself to both subsistence and accumulation. And that change from subsistence to accumulation is how capitalism begins. It has built-in property rights as we’ve discovered when we came up with hybrid corn. It’s very easy to control it. It’s very easy to breed it. And that is simply an accident of faith, that the really interesting…sexual life of corn plants in this enormous space between the tassle where the pollen is and…where the seed is, the corn, we can intervene in that space. Corn makes it very easy to involve us in its sex life, which gives it a very quick feedback loop to give us what we want, whether it’s lots of sugar or lots of starch or the ability to grow here or there. So that’s very important.

It’s also kind of the biggest, fattest child to come out of this post-war marriage between chemicals and hybrids. It really thrives in an industrial setup. It responds very well to chemicals and hybrids in particular. So…we’ve been able to multiply yields immensely. …Which means, by the way, it also sucks up more pesticides and more herbicides than any other crop.

The result has been that yield of corn in this country has gone from about 20 bushels an acre—and that’s thought to be the amount Native Americans were growing, it’s also what farmers in Iowa were growing around the 1880s or 1900—to over 200 bushels an acre today. Now for those of you who don’t remember, there’s 56 pounds of corn—kernels—in a bushel. That is an immense amount of food. That’s 10,000 pounds of food from one acre. It’s quite an accomplishment on the part of this plant. No other domesticate except the Holstein cow has multiplied its productivity [as much] and in fact the relation of the two is quite close, because Holsteins now need corn to do their thing.

So it grew and grew until it displaced other creatures from the land. The reason the animals moved off the farm and corn was able to displace them is corn became so plentiful and so cheap that it didn’t pay farmers to grow it to feed their animals, so they ended up on CAFOs [contained animal feeding operations]. And gradually the biodiversity of these farms shrunk and shrunk and shrunk, the animals left, and you came down to corn upon corn rotations and then corn and soybean rotations, which is actually now going back in some places to corn on corn rotations because the soybeans are having a lot of trouble.

"What this means is that one American industrial farmer can feed, and I use this word advisedly, can feed 118 people. And that is an astonishing accomplishment."

What this means is that one American industrial farmer can feed, and I use this word advisedly, can feed 118 people. And that is an astonishing accomplishment.

Now these gains have always been made under the banner “we need to feed the world.” And you guys are sophisticated enough to know that there’s something not quite right about that, because it hasn’t worked out quite that way. The way we’re feeding the world is making it a lot harder for many of the world’s people to feed themselves. And I don’t want to dwell on the Third World hunger aspect of this, but just to give you an example of how too much food can lead to too little food, ironically enough, because my contention is that you can look at overproduction of corn and understand both hunger and obesity. Now how can that be? Well, on the hunger side, look at Mexico. Since NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was passed, we’ve doubled our exports of cheap corn to Mexico. You would think this might be a boon for urban dwelling Mexicans, which it’s created a lot more of, but in fact, oddly enough, the price of tortillas—as the price of corn has fallen in half—the price of tortillas has actually doubled. And that’s because it’s controlled by essentially two companies that have agreed to keep prices high. So there’s been no gain in terms of feeding Mexicans. What it has done in the countryside is it’s forced a lot of farmers off the land. They can’t compete with this cheap corn. What happens to their land? Well, they go to the city…Those who don’t go to the city and stay on the farm are forced onto increasingly marginal land with environmental detriments, and others go to the city, and their land, the best land, falls into the hands of industrial growers growing for exports back to us. People who go to the city are impoverished, and, even if the corn were cheap, you’d still need money to buy it. So in the end, selling cheap corn overseas has not helped anyone but the people selling cheap corn overseas. It’s not helping the eaters.

Join us September 2 for part II of Michael Pollan’s stirring Ecofarm keynote address, when he ties “big corn” to America’s obesity epidemic, environmental destruction and the loss our family farming communities.