1. A Naturalist in the Supermarket. The modern supermarket—fluorescent-lit, climate-controlled, and sterile—doesn’t seem to be a place teeming with nature. However, it’s a manmade landscape with incredible biodiversity—a cornucopia of different kinds of produce, meats, and processed foods (such as cereals, Pop-Tarts, and non-dairy creamers) that are derived from innumerable plant and animal species that occupy different positions on the food chain.
A supermarket may seem far removed from nature, but as Pollan shows, even the most processed foods are connected to the fundamental food chains that sustain human life. Even a Pop-Tart, for example, has its origins in nature.
Walking through the supermarket, Pollan is astounded by the variety of plant and animal products. He notes that, to a naturalist, biodiversity is a “measure of a landscape’s health,” which might mean that the supermarket’s biodiversity indicates its “ecological vigor.” For the modern-day American consumer, the supermarket offers a world of choice—in, for example, the ready availability of formerly exotic fruits like kiwis, passion fruit, and mangos, which would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago.
The supermarket provides a prime example of the ways the ancient evolutionary “omnivore’s dilemma” perpetuates itself in modern human culture. Humans still face an abundance of dietary choice, although for different reasons. A globalized economy and food system have made available a previously impossible diversity of foods from which to choose.
With few exceptions, all supermarket foods can be traced back to a plant. For produce, this tends to be easy to trace, since each item came directly from a farm. The meat, however, has a slightly more complicated path, since the animals were often born, raised, and killed in different places—not to mention that they were fed with plant products whose origins are difficult to determine. Finally, processed foods are so far from their natural state that only a “fairly determined ecological detective” can connect such foods to their origins in nature.
Pollan reminds readers that all supermarket food comes from a specific place—a farm, pasture, or factory. In this section, he plans to trace the agricultural origins of processed foods, a group of products that can seem impossibly far removed from anything in nature. And yet all foods have to come from somewhere, Pollan points out, and all foods are connected to a food chain.
Pollan says that he became curious about tracing the origins of his food because of his preoccupation with the question of what he should eat. This question actually rests on two fundamental questions: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” Pollan notes that, until quite recently, answering this question wouldn’t have required a journalist like himself. From this observation, he extrapolates a definition of industrial food: “Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain.”
Pollan comments on the absurdity of a food chain so complex that it requires the efforts of a professional journalist like himself to unravel all the connections between the farm and the supermarket. Prehistoric food chains were simple, often involving simply a hunter and their prey or a relatively straightforward agricultural model. By contrast, modern food chains are byzantine and often mysterious.
Pollan sets out to trace the industrial food chain to find the origins of modern processed foods and fast food, expecting to travel far and wide. However, he quickly realizes that the focus of his investigation will be on one species: corn, or Zea mays, which is the (“remarkably narrow”) foundation of the “great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket.” Corn is the primary source of food for fish and livestock, and its derivations play an outsized role in processed food, from soda to Cheez Whiz to ketchup. In fact, corn is an ingredient in more than a quarter of the forty-five thousand items in the average supermarket—even the non-food ones, such as trash bags, cosmetics, and the building materials of the supermarket itself.
It is a marker of the deep connections between all components of the industrial food chain that even a bag of Cheez Whiz can be traced to an Iowa cornfield. In this way, a very complex food chain has an origin in more traditional agriculture, supporting Pollan’s proposition that every food is connected to a larger ecosystem. Pollan seeks to uncover the story of how a single plant—corn—could be connected to the production of so many foods eaten in the United States today.
2. Corn Walking. Pollan notes that some Mexicans refer to themselves as “the corn people,” in recognition of corn’s important role in their diet and life. Though Americans do not have a similar self-conception, Pollan argues that corn is just as central in the United States, if not more so. Americans’ failure to recognize this, Pollan suggests, is in part because corn’s presence in most foods is neither straightforward nor intuitive, and in part because industry has succeeded in convincing Americans that the foods they eat “represent genuine variety rather than so many clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant.” In reality, Americans consume far more processed corn than they realize.
Pollan goes so far as to argue that Americans are “corn people” who consume a diet far more saturated in corn that they would ever know or acknowledge. He attributes this widespread ignorance to a broader lack of consciousness about the origins of food and the interconnectedness of food chains in contemporary industrial agriculture, which often deliberately obscures the origins of its food in order to give the impression of greater dietary variety.
Corn is different from other plants because of its ability to photosynthetically process carbon into energy at a more efficient rate, making corn able to grow in more various and difficult conditions than many other plants. Corn’s efficiency in capturing and using energy helps explain its dominance in the plant world and also makes its molecules identifiable, such that they can be found in the bodies of people who ingest a lot of corn. Scientists comparing the molecules found in human bodies have determined that, because so many of the things Americans eat come from corn, Americans on average end up eating even more of it than Mexicans, who have a much more varied diet.
Pollan explains that efficiency is an evolutionary advantage. In the case of corn, the plant’s ability to photosynthesize at a greater rate than its competitors made it a crop of choice for humans, who valued its high energy content. The efficiency of corn in turn made it efficient for humans, who could gain access to a highly valuable source of protein by cultivating corn and allowing it to take over their grasslands.
3. The Rise of Zea mays. Since corn is native to Central America, it’s worth explaining how the plant conquered agriculture in the United States. When European colonizers came to the Americas, they preferred to grow wheat, the grain to which they were accustomed. At first, it seemed like corn might not survive the collapse of the Native American communities who fostered it in North America, but corn beat out wheat and other European grains because of its ability to grow in different varieties of North American soil, its tremendous food yields, and its diverse uses (including as alcohol, twine, and even currency).
The dominance of corn in North America was far from assured. But the plant was so evidently more efficient than its competitor (wheat) that it soon took over agriculture outside of Central America. By producing larger yields than other plants, corn became an integral part of human agriculture. The story of corn’s triumph shows just how important efficiency is to the survival of a species.
It’s worth noting, too, that corn sustained European colonists and helped them vanquish indigenous Americans, and it also fueled the slave trade, both as food for slaves and as a currency with which traders bartered for enslaved Africans. In fact, corn’s ability to be eaten both fresh and dried and used as a commodity has been key to its success, but also makes it, in Pollan’s words, “the protocapitalist plant.”
Corn’s efficiency also has a darker side. As Pollan shows, the crop has been particularly well-suited to feeding and supporting legions of colonizers, slave-traders, and industrialists, who (not coincidentally) similarly valued the logic of profit and efficiency over other values.
4. Married to Man. Just as humans have relied on corn, though, corn grew to rely on us. In its current form, corn needs humans to survive, since the husk needs to be peeled away from the kernels in order for the corn plant to reproduce. This is quite unusual for a grassy plant. Furthermore, since corn’s pollen needs to travel a long distance to reproduce, it’s easy for humans to interfere in reproduction, making adjustments to the crops along the way.
The co-dependence of corn and humans suggests the close linkage between nature and human agriculture. Corn was once a wild grass, but is now domesticated. Human intervention has quite literally altered nature itself, creating varieties of crops that couldn’t sustain themselves without the efforts of human farmers.
5. Corn Sex. All of this has led corn to adapt to “the world of industrial consumer capitalism,” as Pollan writes, becoming compatible with machines, petrochemical fertilizers, and increased demand for crop yield. Corn has even become a form of intellectual property, as corn breeders discovered a way to make strains of corn whose plants are exact replicas of one another (aiding standardization and mechanization) but whose seeds are essentially sterile, meaning that each crop only lasts a single season, ultimately forcing farmers to buy new seeds every year, which guarantees profits for corporations. As such, Pollan argues that corn’s status as a capitalist plant has been firmly established.
In Pollan’s account, corn has become so closely intertwined with human culture and economic structures that it’s hard to tell whether it’s a product of nature or of human intervention. The genetically-engineered corn of modern-day American agriculture is probably somewhere in between—corn is a very old crop, but it has been transformed in ways that previous generations could not have imagined.