Monday, September 27, 2010

Children of the (A)corn

I've been reviewing parts of The Omnivore's Dilemma by the brilliant Michael Pollan (who in a just world would have been made Secretary of Agriculture).

I remember watching a horror movie called Children of the Corn when I was younger.  Scared the bejeebers out of me.  Steven King generally does. But that's nowhere near as scary as this:  As a country we have become, literally, People of the Corn.

Corn, you see, is one of a handful of "C-4" plants which are able to recruit more carbon and lose less water with every instance of photosynthesis than standard C-3 plants.  (Yes, that sounds spiffy from a economic use of land / feed a hungry world point of view, but it also comes with its dark side - its Faustian bargain, as Pollan says - as we shall see in upcoming posts.)

While C-3 plants generally recruit carbon 12 isotopes, C-4 plants aren't as picky and recruit a much higher percentage of carbon 13 than do C-3 plants.

The level of C-12 and C-13 isotopes in our bodies can be measured.  Americans have surpassed Mexicans as the true "people of the corn" in that we now have higher levels of C-13 isotopes than Mexicans - a people for whom corn is much more of a staple food than it is here - do.  Pollan quotes Todd Dawson, a Berkely biologist who measures carbon isotopes as saying, "we North Americans look like corn chips with legs."  That explains my sudden urge to dive into a vat of salsa.

Why the difference?  Two things:  What we feed our livestock, and how much processed food we eat.  C-13 isotopes accumulate in the body not just from eating whole corn products, but from the myriad processed foods that rely heavily on corn, of course the corn sweeteners in our soft drinks and just about everything else, and from eating anything that is fed corn.

Says Pollan:  "Mexicans today consume a far more varied carbon diet: the animals they eat still eat grass (until recently, Mexicans regarded feeding corn to livestock as a sacriledge); much of their protein comes from legumes; and they still sweeten their beverages with cane sugar."  A LOT of sugar, but cane sugar.

You are what you eat, literally.  Well not quite literally, as we'll explore later; if corn was truly what it ate it would be a fossil fuel, and therefore so would we.

So it boils down to this:  Would you rather be Corn, a crop described by genius/hero/poet/scholar J. Russell Smith as "the killer of continents;" or Acorns, which sustained humanity for millenia, and which fall from plants which require little effort/energy/fuel/destruction to grow???

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