Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Have you had corn today?

You did, whether you know it or not.

Check out this quote from the book Free (47):

Historians often look at the great civilizations of the ancient world through the lens of three grains: rice, wheat, and corn. Rice is protein-rich but extremely hard to grow. Wheat is easy to grow but protein-poor. Only corn is both easy to grow and plump with protein.

What historians have observed is that the protein/labor ratio of these grains influenced the course of civilizations based on them. The higher the ratio, the more "social surplus" the people eating that grain had, since they could feed themselves with less work. The effect of this was not always positive. Rice and wheat societies tended to be agrarian, inwardly focused cultures, presumably because the process of raising the crops took so much of their energy. But corn cultures - the Mayans, the Aztecs - had spare time and energy, which they often used to attack their neighbors. By this analysis, corn's abundance made the Aztecs warlike.
It is an interesting theory. Of course, there are way too many variables to say that growing corn is the reason why those people groups were war-like, but it does lead you to think about what people do with their left-over energy. In fact, there are a lot of things you can do with your spare energy such as being altruistic, using your imagination, research and innovate, and artwork. But of course, that free time also means that you don't have to be as team oriented because you aren't as reliant on others. I certainly hope we are not destined, because we eat more corn than you ever realized.

Today, we use corn for more than just food. Between synthetic fertilizer and breeding techniques that make corn the most efficient converter of sunlight and water to starch the world has ever seen, we are now swimming in a golden harvest of plenty - far more than we can eat. So corn has become an industrial feedstock for products of all sorts, from paint to packaging. Cheap corn has driven out many other foods from our diet and converted natural grass-eating animals, such as cows, into corn-processing machines.

As Michael Pollan points out in The Ominivore's Dilemna, a chicken nugget "piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn [its feed], but so do the nugget's other constituents, including the modified corn starch that blues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter and the corn oil in which it is fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and the lecithin, the mono-, di- and triglycerides, the attractive golden color and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget fresh can all be derived from corn."

A quarter of all the products found in an average supermarket today contain corn, Pollan writes. And that goes for the nonfood items, too! From toothpaste and cosmetics to disposable diapers and cleansers, everything contains corn, even the cardboard they're boxed in. Even the supermarket itself, with its wallboard and joint compound, linoleum and adhesives, is built on corn.
It's worth it to know what you are eating - not only for the dietary reasons, but maybe so you don't find yourself thinking war-like thoughts with your neighbors!

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