Pollan visits the grain elevator where Naylor and other farmers in the surrounding area deposit their corn every year. Disturbed by the amount of corn that’s wasted on its way into the elevator, Pollan learns that this kind of corn is barely edible—it’s commodity corn, which is a hard, industrial variety, a different kind of large-scale material altogether than the corn we eat.
When people think of corn, they probably think of golden ears of corn or corn on the cob. As Pollan finds out, however, commodity corn is a very different kind of foodstuff—a product of human science rather than the corn that naturally grows in fields.
Corn used to be traceable directly from its farms to its consumers, which made growers feel responsible for its quality and safety, but now that it’s conveyed around the country anonymously by a giant network of middlemen, concerns about quality or individuality have disappeared. This began with the advent of railroads and grain elevators, which combine corn by region. Pollan now begins to understand Naylor’s claim that he grows food for “the military-industrial complex.”
Pollan finds that it’s nearly impossible to trace the connections between the corn harvested on Naylor’s farm and the corn-based products people buy in supermarkets. This is because a complex network of “middlemen” process the corn on an anonymous and vast scale, without attention to individual farmers or food products.
In 1856, the government instituted broad categories for corn, including Number 2, which was commodity corn. This created a standard for the corn that erased the need for any further attention to the crop’s quality or individuality, and resulted in farmers focusing only on the amount they were able to grow, making yield the measurement of success. The Iowa Farmers Cooperative and the U.S. Department of Agriculture pay Naylor for his corn. Instead of keeping the supply and price of corn relatively stable, as the New Deal system did, subsidizing payments incentivizes farmers to grow even more corn, further driving down the price. This creates a system in which yield is growing all the time, and the price is falling.
The story of corn’s current dominance in American agriculture is a prime example of the consequences that can result from focus on profit and efficiency to the detriment of all other values. By focusing entirely on yield—the sheer volume of corn they were able to grow every year—farmers managed to increase productivity to new heights. However, this came at a heavy cost to the livelihoods of individual farmers, who grew poorer as the price of the crop decreased.
The cheapness and availability of corn causes people to continue finding new uses for it, which has driven its expansion into so many different products, and contributed to the obesity epidemic in America. Because of this, Pollan realizes that there is no way he will be able to trace one bushel of corn along the industrial food chain.
Counter-intuitively, the supply of corn drives the demand. There is so much corn on the market that food companies have to constantly find more and more uses for a commodity that is produced in inefficiently large amounts.
Pollan identifies the primary obstacle to tracing corn along its food chain: the giant food corporations, like Cargill and ADM. As the primary buyers of corn, they oversee its refinement into food products and exert a tremendous amount of power over the entire system. Because they are intermediaries themselves who don’t deal directly with customers, they have very little, if any, incentive to be transparent. They decline to let Pollan in to follow the corn. Pollan knows, though, that three out of every five kernels wind up on factory farms, which have developed complex processes of forcing cows to eat corn—because all of the corn that’s being produced needs to go somewhere.
In Pollan’s telling, large food companies have little interest in being transparent about all the uses they’ve found for this cheap corn. The result is a food system and web of connections that is almost entirely impenetrable to journalists, let alone the American public, making it difficult to tell exactly where all that corn ends up. Pollan, however, decides to trace one connection between the farm and the factory: the animal feedlot.