When I was in fifth grade, my class took a field trip to the wastewater treatment plant in Holland, Mich. My twenty classmates and I followed the manager on a tour and he told us about the process by which water comes from our toilets, sinks, and bathtubs and is purified before returning to Lake Macatawa. He showed us a big computer used to monitor the water and a huge pile of Happy Meal toys that had been flushed down various toilets and sent to the plant. The toy collection was cool, but the most memorable part of the field trip came when our tour guide lifted a big garage door and showed us a pile of corn taller than our fifth grade teacher. According to the manager, corn doesn’t digest very well and whole kernels come through water pipes and into wastewater treatment plants. I didn’t understand why they kept such a large pile of corn waste in a pile in a shed and I was absolutely disgusted by it. No part of the previous discussion of human waste made me cringe as much as that pile of mushy, yellow corn did.
I felt the same gag reflux when I read the first part of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Throughout this third of the book, Pollan discusses the impact corn has on the American industrial food culture. He makes a pretty convincing argument that corn has conquered the food system in a complex and relatively permanent way. Apparently, we eat corn with almost every fruit, vegetable, meat, and processed food item. It’s even in the vegetable wax that coats cucumbers at the supermarket. Corn is everywhere and Michael Pollan doesn’t seem very happy about it.
He’s convinced me to not be very happy about it either. I am terrified about the impact corn has on our government, our agricultural system, our bodies, and our ecological system. I think it’s really scary that Pollan talked with a farmer who said, “Growing corm is just riding tractors and spraying” (40). I like to think that the food I eat is varied and nutrient rich—that it nourishes my body and becomes part of me—but after reading part one of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’m starting to think that isn’t true. Is it really possible that most of the food I eat comes from the same corn that ends up in big piles of golden, mushy waste at water treatment plants across the United States? Gross.
Michael Pollan’s report on the life cycle of corn makes me want to break down the entire American food system. I feel the urge to chop and drop every ear of corn in Iowa and bulldoze the feedyards that house the steers we eat. I want to go back in time and shake the crazy out of Earl Butz and the heads of General Mills and Cargill. I feel so confused and betrayed by supermarkets and marketers. At the beginning of the book, Pollan writes that many Americans might feel this way and, “as a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety” (1).
Still, Pollan gives me hope that the rest of The Omnivore’s Dilemma might not be so terrifying. He writes, “in the end this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing” (11). I’m crossing my fingers that this pleasure is yet to come.