Sunday, January 10, 2010

Omnivore's Dilemma Ch. 1

Please comment on something that you found to be particularly surprising in the first chapter (and introduction) of The Omnivore's Dilemma.

You can also watch this video of Michael Pollan on last Monday's Daily Show!


  1. I find the premise of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is very intriguing. Pollan hits on something that is very basic and that all human beings think about (at least those who can afford it). What will I eat for dinner? I often find myself in front of my refrigerator every five minutes hoping to find something that wasn’t there the last time I checked. I crave not only food that tastes good, but also a good variety. There were a few points that Pollan touched on that I found particularly interesting.
    First off, it’s amazing how abundant corn is in our everyday diet. Pollan argues that Corn actually domesticated humans, and that it was more instrumental in the destruction of the American Indian than was the gun. He goes on to discuss how corn feeds the meat that we eat, it’s in the starch that holds together chicken nuggets, and that it’s in the syrup found in all soft drinks. It’s funny that although he successfully argues this, he also discusses that a supermarket is the most biologically diverse place on earth, having more species in that size an area of land than any other place.
    I also liked the discussion of how people like George Naylor are some of the most “productive humans who have ever lived.” Pollan claims that in his raising of nothing but corn and soybeans, he is feeding around 129 Americans. But because of the fact that his crop is made to feed the animals that will eventually become meat, he is not able to eat the crop himself. George Naylor is going broke and the 129 people on the other distant end of the food chain will never know who he is and what he’s done for them.

  2. So far I have found the book to be very interesting. I especially appreciate Pollan’s writing style. He is able to take very simple things that we are quite familiar with and look at them from a completely different angle. I really appreciated the bit describing a supermarket. His description transforms a grocery store from a sterile and perfunctory environment, to a botanists paradise, teaming with vibrant assortment of plant life. Next time I am in a grocery store I don’t think I will be able to look at it in the same way. I won’t just be walking down isle 4, I’ll be traveling through a area with more biodiversity than in virtually anywhere else in the world.
    Before I started reading the book I was aware the corn was an important component in virtually everything piece of processed food, and played a huge role in most meat production. But, this first section helped cement this concept. I was particularly fond of the section talking about the amount of corn we consumed, measured by the particular ratio isotopes of C-12 and C-13 isotopes. First I found this a very creative way to measure the amount of corn we consume. I didn’t realize that it was possible to figure this out. I also think its pretty scary that although we as Americans rarely ever eat a ear of corn, we have more corn in our system than some groups who subsist almost entirely on corn. I am really looking forward to reading more into this book.

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  4. I found the point in the book about how nowadays Americans are the true corn people was particularly interesting and some ways disturbing. Pollan describes how researchers found Carbon 13 in the skin or hair of Americans via corn, most likely from processed corn. With corn being originally from ancient Mexico and as a traditional part of their diet, Mexicans were the original corn people. But since Americans are being constantly bombarded by corn in everything they eat, they have stolen the title from the Mexicans. With its ease in growth in which it only needs careful human care and as a perfect fit to our consumerist economy, we have hailed corn as a basis for our food supply. Corn is found in almost every sugary drink manufactured here in the form of corn syrup and is fed to all the cows and chickens we eat. Our dependence on corn is killing our environment. Since it is usually grown by itself in monocultures that cover millions of acres of land, it is depleting and eroding the soil, which results in depending largely on synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers. Pesticides are needed to make it look appealing and edible, which endangers our health. Also as a C-4 plant, it needs to absorb a lot of water to keep it intact, which is quickly draining the water supply in the Midwest. I heard recently that 3 varieties of GM engineered corn appear in laboratory conditions to have harmful effects on human organs. Corn has been the foundation of the Mayan civilization, yet by how we are using corn right now, it may contribute the end of civilization.

  5. The part of chapter one that I found most interesting was not just how much we use corn today, but how much we take for granted the history of corn in the New World. As Pollan points out, "The white man brought his own 'associate species' with him to the New World - cattle and apples, pigs and wheat...and wherever possible helped them to displace the native plants and animals allied with the Indian." (24) In short, we tried to kill off corn when we first got here. But, upon looking towards all that we create with corn today, what would our society be had we successfully depleted all native plants upon arrival in North America? We owe a lot more to Native Americans than many people assume - in a sense, everything that involves corn for production is possible because of these people who we so blatantly tried to purge from society.

    In a few words, what I got out of this chapter is that corn is invincible - it can be hybridized, it can reproduce, and that is why humans can allow ourselves to be so dependent on it. As pointed out in section 4, "Married to man," we have created an equilibrium in which man depends on corn for production and corn depends on man for survival.

  6. I think it’s crazy how much corn has evolved to depend on humans. I knew because you told us earlier this year that corn can’t reproduce without our help anymore, but the extent to which it evolved to be our ideal plant is ridiculous. It just doesn’t make sense as a life form without humans. And only humans – Pollan says opposable thumbs are needed to remove the husk and separate and plant the seeds. I find it a bit weird that Pollan keeps insisting corn has conquered or domesticated humans – it doesn’t have a brain – but I had no idea that so much of what I eat is made of corn. I always do read ingredient labels and wonder what all that stuff actually is – this makes me want to learn how to plant so I can have my own garder and grow my own food. I really want to do that now. It’s scary that we depend so much on one plant, expecially when that plant has so little genetic diversity or ability to survive. And that food companies manipulate us so much – that is VERY scary. How many people know that basically everything they eat is corn?

  7. I was interested in reading that some of our current food problems may stem from us not having strong food traditions. Pollan says that drastic changes, like shifting from a mindset of not eating a lot of meat, to thinking "what if fat doesn't make you fat?" may be a result of this. This has caused Americans to make a strong shift away from eating bread and pasta, which are historically, "two of the most wholesome and uncontroversial foods known to man." He mentions how we are so astonished that French people can eat such "unhealthy foods" without getting fat. I have definitely heard people mention things like this before.

    I also agree with Julian in that I really like Pollan's writing style. It's funny and interesting to read. I was also really amazed that corn is in soooo much of the food we eat. It's in food, soda, sweets, and it what feeds our meat. I always think of corn on the cob when I think of corn, and have eaten it a lot growing up (my mom is from Nebraska). But after reading this it will be hard not to think of corn as being a weird thing that is omnipresent and is processed into many weird forms. Corn here, corn there, corn everywhere!

  8. So far I have really enjoyed the way in which Pollen approaches the whole topic of food and more importantly agricultural practices in the United States. I appreciate that he went into detail about Naylor, and his fellow farmers because it kind of put the whole corn situation into perspective for me. I think that at least in my own case it is easy to begin to feel that the additive nature of our relationship with corn is caused only by production, and the blame can be put primarily on that end, and yet the account of his interactions reminded me that there is more than one side to the story. It isn't just supply but also demand, particularly that from big companies and even the government.

    Also I thought it interesting how Pollen made a comment about how Americans are now corn people as opposed to wheat people. I suppose that I already knew this, considering the emphasis that we put on corn in class, and the amount of corn that can be seen during any given road trip, but none the less I was still moderately surprised by this just because I feel like much of the American image is still centered on wheat. For example when I see art depicting America's rolling hills they are hills of wheat, not corn. Maybe this is just because as a culture we don’t yet acknowledge the degree to which we are now reliant on corn, but either way I still found this to be interesting when I read it.