It’s a world-famous grass, and crucial to our bellies. It’s called Zea mays by botanists; rock-heads like me call it corn. Compared to many plants, it’s excellent at tolerating drought and heat – almost in a class by itself in that regard.
Corn is obviously at the heart of corn muffins and tortillas, but you likely eat more corn in the form of corn-based sweetener in “junk food” and sweet drinks than directly as corn meal. Processed corn also gives us corn oil and corn coatings that are used in packaged foods.
But it might surprise you to learn that if you went to a standard supermarket, did your shopping, and then had eggs for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, and beef for dinner, you would be, in fact, essentially eating corn at each and every meal. That’s because chickens these days eat corn – on their way to producing eggs and chicken flesh for us – and modern steers gulp down corn in feedlots.
In short, the 21st century American diet is built on corn.
You don’t have to trace grain through the food supply to prove that statement. We can even demonstrate it by taking a chemical analysis of our bodies.
Here’s why the chemical analysis works:
Zea mays is quite a different plant from other grasses like wheat. It has a different way of capturing carbon dioxide from the air around it.
Now, as it happens, there are several kinds of carbon atoms in this world. They are all carbon – but they have slightly different weights (called isotopes in the trade). The carbon in corn has a different ratio of isotopes in it than the carbon of wheat because of the differences in the way the two plants “breath in” carbon dioxide and water from the air.
So wheat, in this sense, really is different from corn, and a human body made of eating wheat is ever so slightly different from a human body made of eating corn. We literally are what we eat (which makes me a walking blob of peanut butter, but that’s another story).
There was a day long ago we grew a lot of wheat in the Midwest. But we switched to growing corn. The reason is that – using industrial farming methods – it happens that corn can be grown in the American Midwest in great abundance.
It’s an accident, if you will, that Zea mays does so very, very well in our Midwest. But flourish it does, and with fertilizers derived largely from fossil fuels, we can grow prodigious amounts of corn.
Part of the complex story of King Corn is sketched in a book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Later this month, the author will be coming to Washington State University where I work. He’ll field our questions about everything from industrial agriculture to corn genetics.
I’m rereading parts of Pollan’s book a second time prior to his visit. If you are looking for something to give you one person’s view of modern agriculture, the book can be fun. To be sure, it’s only the kind of book that starts a discussion – not finishes it.
One point to always remember is that the American farmer has fed millions and millions of people both here and overseas. Part of the recipe for that accomplishment has been the success of Zea mays right here in the middle of our continent.
We’ve built a lot on an unusual grass – and been inventive in all that we do with its by-products. The question now is how much we like the current system, with its drawbacks and advantages, and whether we really want to make changes toward more diversification in our agricultural base. To do that, we all have to think through how we’d like to cook and eat, and what we want to pay for our meals.
The issues are so complex I’m certainly glad it’s not up to geologists to decide them. But we all, together as citizens and consumers, determine such matters. So if you are looking for some post-dinner armchair travels through the food supply on long winter evenings, Pollan’s book is one way to begin.