The history of corn

Recently I read a book called the Omnivores Dilemma written by Michael Pollen (thanks Janice). It was written a few years ago and although written from the American food system perspective it indirectly relates as much to Canada as it does to the United States.

Recently I read a book called the Omnivores Dilemma written by Michael Pollen (thanks Janice). It was written a few years ago and although written from the American food system perspective it indirectly relates as much to Canada as it does to the United States. The author takes a look at modern food choices and studies various choices in depth to try and decide morally, ethically and realistically what we “Omnivores” (a person or animal who eat all types of food) should eat. Traditionally people’s diet used to be closely connected to what was available in their immediate area but today with our modern transportation systems a much wider choice of food is available. The book initially deals with one food item and how this one plant has affected our entire modern food system. That plant is corn. How this peculiar grass, native to Central America and unknown to the Old World before 1492 came to take over our food system is an amazing story. Corn as we know it today would not exist if it weren’t for the humans that cultivated and developed it, as it is utterly dependent for its survival on man or animal, to remove the husk, separate the seeds and plant them. Without man’s interference corn would have been just another natural genetic anomaly that would not have survived. Native Americans probably discovered it by accident and over time they taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and the saga began. No other plant could produce quite so much food as fast and efficiently and adapted as well to the soil and climate of North America. Soon this one plant supplied settlers with a ready-to eat vegetable, a source of fiber and animal feed, a heating fuel and alcohol. Not only was corn valuable for subsistence, but the kernel’s qualities made it a storable product, and this in turn made it a marketable commodity. Dried corn was easy to transport and virtually indestructible. Corn’s dual purpose, as food and commodity, meant it had potentially great value, and became one of the early forms of currency. Corn, and all forms of grain, of which wheat in Canada is the dominant grain product, is the closest thing in nature to an industrial commodity. Because of this the nations with the most excess product have power over the ones in short supply. In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy; the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, and the balance of trade. Ironically just as the early natives and settlers used the entire corn plant, so today is the entire corn plant used, but today it involves great technological advances to extract and utilize every molecule. More than a quarter of all food products in the supermarket contain some form of corn. Some of the corn ingredients are understandable – corn oil, corn flour, corn starch, corn syrup – but also most of the unpronounceable ingredient products also come from corn. Corn has especially taken over the sugar industry and it shows up in the ingredients under many different names.

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