1. One Farmer, 129 Eaters. Pollan visits George Naylor on his 320-acre farm in Iowa, which has been in his family since his grandfather bought it in 1919. The soil is rich—in Naylor’s grandfather’s day, it produced a variety of plants and animals that made up enough food for his family plus twelve others. Today, George grows only corn and soybeans, but he produces enough to feed 129 people. Unfortunately, though, the farm survives solely due to the support of his wife’s job and government subsidies.
Naylor’s farm is very efficient in the production of corn, but this success leads, paradoxically, to inefficiency. The more corn he grows, the less money he makes, since the commodity has become so plentiful that it is now very cheap. His farm wouldn’t survive without the financial support of the government.
Despite the fact that Naylor’s farm produces enough corn to feed 129 people, his crops aren’t sold directly as food. Indeed, he sells commodity corn, which must be “processed or fed to livestock before” a person can eat it. By the time it reaches consumers at the other end of the food chain, Naylor’s corn has become one of many ingredients in industrially-produced foods. Furthermore, the consumers know nothing about the origins of this food. “Ask one of those eaters where their steak or soda comes from,” Pollan writes, “and she’ll tell you ‘the supermarket.’”
Pollan’s investigative journalism reveals that corn is in fact the basis of a wide variety of food chains in the United States, from the beef sold in supermarkets to the sodas people purchase with their fast food meals. However, industrial agriculture has obscured the profound and deep connections between corn and processed food.
2. Planting the City of Corn. Pollan helps Naylor plant corn, endlessly going over rows and rows in the tractor and marveling at the technological advances that allow Naylor’s farm to be so much more productive than his grandfather’s would have been. For one, F-1 high-yield corn can be planted much closer together than the corn his grandfather planted (Naylor eschews GMO corn, but the F-1 variety is still very technologically advanced).
Contemporary American farms can produce far more corn than any other time in human history. Human technology has intervened in natural agricultural processes, employing genetically-engineered seeds that raise crop yields and make it possible to feed 129 people from a single cornfield.
The F-1 variety of corn can be planted so close together because every plant is genetically identical to the other. Whereas non-hybrid corn stalks would grow spindly from jostling each other for sunlight, genetically engineered corn is able to share resources like sunlight, water, and soil. The density of corn planted in Iowa mirrors the population density of many urban centers, Pollan asserts.
Human intervention resolved an old agricultural problem: corn stalks can’t grow too close together, because they’ll compete for sunlight. Genetically-engineered corn, however, has no such problem, and the density of cornfields now resembles the density of human cities.
3. Vanishing Species. The growing profitability and efficiency of corn over the years is what helped it dominate the landscape, as farmers have done more and more to facilitate and accommodate corn’s growth. As corn became increasingly profitable, farmers grew more and more of it, which led to a decline in its price. Instead of discouraging farmers, this caused them to grow more corn—its cheapness made it the choice ingredient for animal feed, which then consolidated the industrial livestock industry and put smaller farmers out of the animal business. Instead of raising animals, they grew more corn.
Logic might lead one to expect that more efficiency in farming is a good thing. When the farmer produces more crops, there is more food for everyone and the farmer prospers. However, this hasn’t been the case in Iowa. Farmers produce too much corn, turning their farmers into “monocultures”—single crop farms that have no room for other crops and are entirely financially dependent on the price of corn.
By now, expanding cornfields have pushed people out, leaving emptied towns in Iowa. This is because it requires far less human labor to grow corn and soybeans than to farm the diversified holdings of the past. As a result, George Naylor’s local town is a “ghost town”—the middle school can’t even field a football team.
The efficiency of growing corn should have made rural towns in Iowa prosper. But on the contrary, mechanical labor in the monoculture of corn has taken over many human jobs, impoverishing the community.
4. There Goes the Sun. The corn boom was aided by an agricultural revolution brought about when ammonium nitrate that was left over from World War II was converted to use as chemical fertilizer. This synthetic nitrogen ended humanity’s dependence on naturally-occurring nitrogen, which is necessary to form the building blocks of life. Fritz Haber, who first developed the method of “fixing” nitrogen, or combining it with hydrogen to make it usable to grow food, used his technology to massively increase soil fertility, growing more food for an expanding population. Unfortunately, Haber’s work also helped sustain Nazi Germany. Later in life, he collaborated with Hitler and used his scientific skills to create explosives, chemical weapons, and poison gas.
The career of Fritz Haber points to the dark side of twentieth-century technological advances and the increasing human capacity to meddle with natural processes. Haber’s inventions significantly improved soil fertility, allowing agriculture to feed far more people. But his scientific skills were also used for violent purposes in World War II, demonstrating how quickly human interventions in nature can lead to unforeseen and disastrous consequences.
Haber’s method of fixing nitrogen relies on petroleum, which began to be pumped into cornfields in large amounts to increase the crop’s yields. Farmers no longer need to rotate crops to preserve the fertility of the soil, nor rely on corn’s natural processes of extracting nitrogen with solar energy. The new farming methods using synthetic fertilizer and pesticides created a system that used fifty gallons of oil on every acre of corn, an incredibly ecologically inefficient system, but an economically viable one as long as fossil fuels and corn are both plentiful. Unfortunately, the runoff from these petrochemical additives are poisoning the country, draining down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, where the chemicals have killed off a large swath of aquatic life.
Haber’s career also suggests that human intervention in nature can have hidden negative effects. His method of fixing nitrogen led to positive strides for human prosperity, in that new farming methods made crop yields much larger and more predictable, and did away with the uncertainty and food shortages that had affected agriculture for much of human history. However, the use of these new synthetic fertilizers has also had serious negative impacts on the environment and on the health of the natural world.
5. A Plague of Cheap Corn. George Naylor explains to Pollan how corn came to be so heavily subsidized by the government. Policies enacted during the Great Depression to ensure a steady supply of corn set a market price and worked with farmers to keep it there until the 1950s. After that, the government began to resent the power of farmers, who had become exempt from traditional market forces.
The American government has an interest in subsidizing cheap corn because it prevents food shortages. However, this drive to maximize efficiency in the food system has led to the financial inefficiency of farmers being given money by the government to make up for the shortfall in their incomes.
6. The Sage of Purdue. President Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture sold 30 million tons of American grain to Russia in the hopes of driving up prices and securing reelection for Nixon in 1972. The resulting scarcity encouraged farmers to grow more, and the government began subsidizing the growth of corn (up to a price that has steadily decreased since) so that farmers could sell it regardless of the market price.
Because the government wants corn to remain at a very low price (which is useful to food processing companies), it has to artificially fix the price of corn by giving farmers money to grow it. The result is an economic cycle in which the government must continually financially support the flow of cheap corn.
7. The Naylor Curve. As corn prices have declined, farmers have continued to produce more in order to make ends meet, which only makes the cycle worse. It is inescapable, since the entire infrastructure of modern farming is now geared towards corn and soybeans, and the longer those crops are grown, the more the soil is worn out, and the more chemical fertilizer it needs. Artificially cheap corn is still a major investment by the government, which spends $5 billion a year on corn subsidies, to the benefit of the buyers of cheap corn—the giant food companies that use it. Naylor, who is barely making ends meet by keeping his farm expenses to a minimum, introduces Pollan to a neighbor who is growing a larger quantity of corn, but has taken on a second job to pay for all of the equipment he requires. By the measure of pure yield, the neighbor is doing better, but on a more comprehensive comparison, Naylor is more successful.
As Pollan shows, the inefficient system of overproduction of corn and government subsidies is now firmly entrenched in American agriculture. Food companies rely on cheap corn and farmers rely on government funds to keep them going, in a vicious cycle that ironically began as an effort to make American agriculture more efficient and productive. For example, although the farms of Naylor and his neighbors are technically “successful” in terms of their production of corn—after all, they don’t grow anything else anymore—they have to take outside jobs to make ends meet, since the price of corn is so low.