The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by

Michael Pollan

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Corn Symbol Analysis

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As the most ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods, and the basis of the food chain for all industrially-raised meats and animal products in America, corn symbolizes the absurdity of the industrial food system. Michael Pollan argues that even the most synthetic American foods can be traced back to nature, and that therefore all of people’s choices have wide-reaching effects on the natural world. Corn is in fact the main ingredient in a dizzying array of processed foods, from soft drinks to cereals. Americans have the impression that they eat a rich and varied diet, but Pollan points out that the United States has become a “nation of corn eaters.” At no point in the longstanding and intimate relationship between humans and corn have people eaten so much corn, in so many different ways.

These unprecedently high levels of corn production come at a high cost, however—to the health of animals, humans, and the environment, and to the financial resources of the government, which heavily subsidizes corn farmers. High subsidies and production quotas have pushed farmers to produce more and more corn, driving down the price of the commodity and impoverishing farmers. (Counter-intuitively, the more productive farmers are, the more money they lose.) This surplus of corn is used to feed animals that are not adapted to eat it, leading to health problems in the animals and then in humans, who are similarly made unhealthy by overconsumption of corn. These absurdities demonstrate the ways in which the industrial food system has very significant costs and inefficiencies by most standards—and yet these concerns have been subjugated to the large profits made by the food businesses that dominate the agricultural economy. Corn symbolizes the effects of capitalism run amok, overtaking the food system and twisting the logic of the way people eat.

Corn Quotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The The Omnivore’s Dilemma quotes below all refer to the symbol of Corn. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Bloomsbury edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma published in 2006.
Chapter 10 Quotes

Our civilization and, increasingly, our food system are strictly organized on industrial lines. They prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability, and economies of scale. Everything about corn meshes smoothly with the gears of this great machine; grass doesn’t.

Related Characters: Michael Pollan (speaker)
Related Symbols: Corn, Grass
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Omnivore’s Dilemma LitChart as a printable PDF.

Corn Symbol Timeline in The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The timeline below shows where the symbol Corn appears in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: The Plant: Corn’s Conquest
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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3. The Rise of Zea mays. Since corn is native to Central America, it’s worth explaining how the plant conquered agriculture in the... (full context)
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It’s worth noting, too, that corn sustained European colonists and helped them vanquish indigenous Americans, and it also fueled the slave... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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5. Corn Sex. All of this has led corn to adapt to “the world of industrial consumer capitalism,” as Pollan writes, becoming compatible with... (full context)
Chapter 2: The Farm
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The F-1 variety of corn can be planted so close together because every plant is genetically identical to the other.... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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By now, expanding cornfields have pushed people out, leaving emptied towns in Iowa. This is because it requires far... (full context)
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4. There Goes the Sun. The corn boom was aided by an agricultural revolution brought about when ammonium nitrate that was left... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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7. The Naylor Curve. As corn prices have declined, farmers have continued to produce more in order to make ends meet,... (full context)
Chapter 3: The Elevator 
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...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... (full context)
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In 1856, the government instituted broad categories for corn, including Number 2, which was commodity corn. This created a standard for the corn that... (full context)
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The cheapness and availability of corn causes people to continue finding new uses for it, which has driven its expansion into... (full context)
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Pollan identifies the primary obstacle to tracing corn      along its food chain: the giant food corporations, like Cargill and ADM. As the primary... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Feedlot: Making Meat
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...previous fall. He wants to understand how the meat industry transforms the country’s surplus of corn into cattle feed, and subsequently into meat. (full context)
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...lives on the small family farms of the past. The cattle here subsist chiefly on corn—which is ironic, Pollan points out, since cows have evolved to subsist on grass. The only... (full context)
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...The steer can only reach slaughter weight—1,100 pounds—at that age with a large quantity of corn, protein supplements, and drugs. (full context)
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...confined to a pen, taught to eat from a trough, and become accustomed to eating corn. Ed Blair suggested that Pollan should buy one of the calves, if he really wanted... (full context)
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...Naylor’s farm, Pollan realizes that this city is not just built on a mountain of corn. It’s also floating on an “invisible sea of petroleum”—the fossil fuels used to produce all... (full context)
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...tour at the feedmill, which processes a million pounds of feed each day. There the corn is mixed with various other ingredients: liquid vitamins, fat, and protein supplements. This feed fattens... (full context)
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Cattle are fed corn because it is the cheapest source of calories. But Pollan argues that this is not... (full context)
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...most of the cattle are sick, in one way or another. A concentrated diet of corn causes digestion problems including bloating and diarrhea, which can sometimes lead to suffocation, abscessed livers,... (full context)
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Pollan reflects that steer number 534 is not just connected to the production of cheap corn—he’s also the result of a chain of production that begins with petroleum (which is used... (full context)
Chapter 5: The Processing Plant: Making Complex Foods
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1. Taking the Kernel Apart: The Mill. About a fifth of the corn produced in the United States goes to “wet mill” plants owned by companies like Cargill... (full context)
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...which is used in automobile fuel. By the end of the process, nothing of the corn remains. Unlike the feedlot, there is no waste here. But this isn’t a “natural” ecological... (full context)
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Two plants—corn and soybeans—provide most of the ingredients in processed foods. At the same time, paradoxically, most... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Consumer: A Republic of Fat
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In the early nineteenth century, Americans were also confronted with a surplus of corn. Farmers responded by making the economically sound calculation to distill their excess corn into cheap... (full context)
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Pollan dates the upswing in corn consumption to the 1970s, when President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, instituted a policy... (full context)
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In 1980, corn became an ingredient in Coca-Cola; by the mid-1980s, many soft drinks used high-fructose corn syrup... (full context)
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...about the obesity epidemic, Pollan points out that the government is still subsidizing the cheap corn that guarantees that “the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” (full context)
Chapter 7: The Meal: Fast Food
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...is now fairly common: 19 percent of American meals are eaten in the car. Besides, “corn was the theme of this meal,” and the Pollan family car is also consuming ethanol. (full context)
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...obscures the process of food production so that people don’t know just how much processed corn they’re eating. With the help of a scientist, he realizes that most of his family’s... (full context)
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 Pollan poses the question of whether eating all this corn is a bad thing. From the perspective of food processing companies, corn is good business.... (full context)
Chapter 8: All Flesh is Grass
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...access to water and sunlight. In the agricultural period, “annual” grasses like wheat, rice, and corn began growing nutritionally dense seeds that humans could harvest and eat directly. (They are called... (full context)
Chapter 10: Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture
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...food chain. He wonders how and why humans ever moved away from grass-fed beef to corn-fed beef, since an acre of well-managed grass is actually more productive than an acre of... (full context)
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...farmed recreationally, which gave him the freedom to experiment with non-traditional agriculture. Instead of growing corn—which he thought was a recipe for financial ruin, given the experiences of many of his... (full context)
Chapter 11: Animals: Practicing Complexity
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...he uses these “stacking” techniques to create a very rich compost from cow manure and corn that he then feeds to his pigs. (full context)
Chapter 14: The Meal: Grass Fed
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...are to bake, with their supple and creamy texture. He explains that everything, even the corn, is part of the same food system, since the corn was grown in chicken manure.... (full context)
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...a grain-based diet is that the proportion of omega-6s (an inflammatory found in grains like corn) to omega-3s in human bodies has increased. The result is higher incidence of blood clots,... (full context)