Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2333:
CORN'S BEST FRIEND

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, we consider corn’s kernel of truth. The University of Houston's Honors College presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The colonization of humankind by vegetables has been a staple of Hollywood from Day of the Triffids to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These cinematic evil seeds came from outer space or the Soviet Union. But soon appearing at a supermarket near you will be a new version of veggies gone mad—one where America cultivates its own worst enemy.

The star of this new epic is corn. As the credits roll, we discover that this versatile actor is really a cast of thousands. Meat and fowl, eggs and dairy: once the stuff of grass, they are all now corn fed. And the chicken nugget takes a bow. Through modern alchemy, the nugget is held together, plumped up and coated with an array of, yes, corn derivatives. Now wet your whistle with your favorite soft drink. It is laced with high fructose corn syrup. The odds are that the very containers for this tasty repast are also corn-derived.

The writer Michael Pollan estimates that a quarter of all supermarket items contain stuff we squeeze from corn. Fructose, glucose, ethanol (not just for cars, but also beer), sorbitol, MSG: the list goes on and on. Americans consume so much corn, says Todd Dawson, a research biologist at UB Berkeley, we “look like corn chips with legs.”

As the movie’s plot thickens, we discover that more than our bodies are morphing. Our economy, for starters. Federal subsidies, which approach five billion dollars a year, were meant to help farmers remain solvent. Yet a perverse economic logic compels farmers to plant ever-greater amounts of corn for ever-shrinking profit margins. The scramble to increase yield, in turn, alters the environment. As Pollan notes, the miracle of synthetic nitrogen liberated farmers from traditional biological constraints. On the one hand, this is a great and good thing: the earth could never support its population without the harnessing of nitrogen. Yet, on the other hand, chemical fertilizers, along with the waste from industrial animal operations they support, have fouled the atmosphere, rivers and lakes.

Odd things are also happening to animals: their plumbing has been retooled. For example, cows were meant to eat grass, not corn. Subject to this diet and penned in vast feedlots, they easily sicken. And so, industrial farm operations lace antibiotics into the corn meal. As one industry veterinarian said about his cows, “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Nor, perhaps, would public health specialists. Our movie climaxes with the corn dog, fries, shakes and burgers on our laps. Not only have we grown more vulnerable to diseases that antibiotics once cured; we are creating new categories of diseases like childhood obesity and diabetes.

How does the movie end? Too early to say. Still, for some observers, corn has done a better job cultivating us than we have cultivating it.

I’m Rob Zaretsky at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: Penguin, 2004)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.