The omnivore's new dilemma

Cheap corn made America fat. So what's expensive corn going to do?

Published February 1, 2008 9:24PM (EST)

"The price of food is no longer a political issue."

"These days the price of a bushel of corn is about a dollar beneath the true cost of growing it, a boon for everyone but the corn farmer."

Michael Pollan, "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

Like "Fast Food Nation," "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is a book so compelling that reading it changes your relationship to the physical world: Afterward, you simply can't ever again look at a can of Coke or a bag of Cheetos without shuddering as you contemplate the completely bonkers industrial food system that produced such modern artifacts. But for a book published as recently as 2006, what might be most fascinating about "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is how quickly fundamental changes in the U.S. agricultural economy have turned some of Pollan's basic themes upside down.

The first third of "Omnivore" explains how the American way of food is linked to the historic steady decline (with a couple of upward blips) in corn prices over the last century. Farmers have been caught in a remorseless bind. Whenever the price of corn declines, they are forced to grow even more to pay their bills, which in turn only depresses prices further. Add to that mix the Nixon-era rejiggering of corn subsidies that de facto encouraged farmers to produce even more, while further depressing corn prices, and you end up with a society overwhelmed with far more corn than it knows what to do with. But American food capitalists are nothing if not innovative. So: high fructose corn syrup, ethanol, cattle feed. Corn, broken down into scores of chemical constituents, became a primary building block for processed food of all descriptions. If one had to choose one sentence to sum up "Omnivore," it might be: Our diet sucks, because corn is too cheap.

Except, of course, now corn isn't cheap at all -- it's $5 a bushel (up from $2 at the beginning of 2006). Livestock owners are outraged, and food security in the developing world is the new rallying cry for activists of all persuasions. The price of food is once again a political issue. In the space of barely 18 months we've gone from a scenario in which American farmers routinely overproduced to one in which they can't possibly produce enough to satisfy demand. The prospect of this coming to pass is never even hinted at by Pollan. Indeed, one could almost imagine him applauding, if he had been told when "Omnivore" was originally published that two years later the beef industry would be screaming bloody murder about how ethanol had forced the cost of cattle feed sky-high. Fantastic news! Cows were never designed to eat corn! High fructose corn syrup isn't healthy!. Make corn more expensive, and maybe Americans will be a little less obese.

Maybe this explains why, as Pollan was recently quoted saying in a San Francisco Chronicle feature, that his next book might be on the topic of ethanol.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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