Probably the best unintentional compliment a hostile reviewer has paid my new book, The Eggs Benedict Option, was to describe it as “if Tucker Carlson tried to write the Omnivore’s Dilemma.” The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s book about the food Americans eat and why they eat it, is justly revered by everyone from “crunchy moms” and champions of organic farming to right-wing bodybuilders like myself. As much as critics might want to believe that right-wing politics and care for the food supply make strange bedfellows, they really don’t—or shouldn’t.
Pollan begins from a simple premise—the eponymous dilemma—that omnivorous creatures, whether rats or humans, can exercise choice in what they eat, unlike, say, koalas, which are herbivores and eat eucalyptus leaves for the most part. He goes on to show how Americans have chosen to become virtual “monovores,” consuming one food in particular above all others. That food is corn, in the myriad forms it now takes, from maltodextrin and high-fructose corn syrup to Mazola (corn oil) and the feed that gets stuffed into most of the cows, pigs, and chickens Americans eat, by way of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Over the course of the 20th century, with the so-called “Green Revolution,” new farming techniques and chemical products were developed that increased corn yields nearly sixfold, from 25 bushels an acre to 140. The United States now produces more than 10 billion bushels a year.
So much corn passes down the average American’s throat that special isotope tests can be performed to quantify exactly how much of the carbon in their body comes from corn in one form or another. “When you look at the isotope ratios,” said one scientist Pollan interviewed for the book, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” The Mexicans, and their ancestors, the Mayans and the Aztecs, have historically been called “the People of Corn,” but it’s modern-day Americans who truly deserve that moniker.
America has a long history of overproducing corn, stretching back to the early days of independence. In the late 18th century, massive corn surpluses were turned into cheap grain alcohol, especially whisky, which led to a nationwide bender lasting decades. America was a teenage tearaway drunk on corn—an “Alcoholic Republic,” as the title of a famous history book has it.
The nation’s present addiction to corn dates more specifically to the aftermath of World War I, when the bottom dropped out of the overseas market for American corn, as European domestic production resumed, and the government stepped in with subsidies to protect American farmers.
Over time, due to stresses like the Great Depression and policies like Nixon agriculture secretary Earl Butz’s “get big or get out,” the subsidy system morphed into something it was never intended to be: a system in which the government makes up shortfalls in market prices. Corn production has been massively consolidated in the hands of corporate players, who have an incentive to overproduce, driving market prices down. They are then given what are effectively kickbacks—enormous kickbacks—for doing so. All at taxpayer expense.
If this sounds stupid, that’s because it is.
All that corn has to go somewhere. And it does. Whereas 200 years ago it became grain alcohol and everybody got smashed, now as much corn as possible goes into food and drink—and what happens? Everybody gets fatter and sicker.
Much of the corn flows into processed food, a new class of food product that humans had never eaten before the middle of the 20th century but that now makes up the majority of calories for an ever-growing number of Americans. Children under five years-old in the United States now consume 58 percent of their daily calories from processed food. Processed-food consumption has been linked to everything from obesity and diabetes to cancer and even autism.
Novel ingredients made from corn have also been created to get even more corn into food, as if there weren’t already enough. In the 1980s, Americans were told that high-fructose corn syrup would be a substitute for traditional sugars in food products. In fact, it became a supplement to them. Americans now guzzle 60 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup every year in addition to the more than 150 pounds of refined sugars they would have been consuming anyway. Go into the supermarket and pick up virtually any packaged product from the shelf. Condiments, breads and cereals, pizzas, even meat products—chances are, you’ll find high-fructose corn syrup listed among the ingredients. Why is there high-fructose corn syrup in this ham!? You tell me.
And don’t forget the livestock, either.
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the idea of taking livestock off the land, where they can move around and eat the foods they’re supposed to eat and spread free fertilizer while they’re doing it, and instead crowding them in warehouses so they can be pumped full of corn and other subsidised crops like soybeans, would rightly have been considered insane, a twisted deviation from the natural order of things. Yet that’s precisely what American farmers have done in droves since the middle of the last century.
The enormous suffering of livestock in CAFOs would simply never have been possible without all that corn to keep them fed and fat. As if all that suffering weren’t bad enough, it also translates to worse end-products, with an inferior nutritional profile when compared to meat, milk, and eggs from pastured animals.
From a food system serving the needs of individuals and their communities, we have arrived at a food system that instead serves the reproductive needs of just a single grain crop and the profit margins of an ever-diminishing number of corporate agribusiness megaplayers. The rise of corporations and their dominance of American private and public life is surely the defining feature of the last century and a half, and one of the central insights of Pollan’s book is how “smoothly” corn production “meshes” with the broader corporate-industrial system. This is no accident.
“George Naylor [a small corn-farmer Pollan interviewed] is not far off when he says the real beneficiary of his crop is not America’s eaters but its military-industrial complex. In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy: the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry [oil is used to make chemical fertilizers], Detroit, pharmaceuticals (without which they couldn’t keep animals healthy in CAFOs), agribusiness, and the balance of trade. Growing corn helps drive the very industrial complex that drives it. No wonder the government subsidizes it so lavishly.”
Seen in this broader perspective, it’s clear that corn is central to the way America functions as a nation, socially, economically and politically. And that means big power not just at home but also abroad. American corn’s role in international politics has been on prominent display in the last few weeks, with news that the U.S. government is attempting to steamroll the Mexican government into continuing to accept imports of genetically modified corn, against its stated wishes to ban them and move to a more ecologically sound model of food production and consumption.
Almost 90 percent of American corn production is now genetically modified, a development that further benefits big, woke corporations, which produce the patented seeds and the trademark herbicides and pesticides that are used to treat them. In recent years, Bayer, the owner of Monsanto, is known to have worked closely with U.S. government officials to pressure the Mexican government not to ban glyphosate, a pesticide that’s used closely with genetically modified crops and has been tied to a laundry list of environmental, animal, and human harms, from loss of biodiversity, including vital pollinators like bees and soil microorganisms, to cancer and reproductive issues in humans.
“The US’s shameful efforts to strong-arm Mexico into accepting GE [genetically engineered] corn it has rejected is nothing short of 21st-century imperialism,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity, of the latest attempt at intervention. “Our government is working tirelessly to pad the multibillion-dollar profits of domestic agribusiness corporations by pushing GE corn, even though our glyphosate-drenched GE cornfields are playing an outsized role in driving catastrophic declines in vital pollinator populations.”
Sorry, bees. The woke, pronouns-in-their-bios execs at Monsanto want you gone.
Mexican environmentalists and lawmakers are right that the use of genetically modified corn is incompatible with ecologically sound farming. It also appears to be incompatible with a healthy populace.
As I’ve already noted, chemicals that are used to treat genetically modified corn are known to have serious negative health effects in humans, but these are also used on crops that aren’t genetically modified. As far as genetically modified corn goes, consumption appears to be linked directly to weight gain and the worsening obesity epidemic in the United States. It’s been noted by researchers that not only is there an almost 1 to 1 correlation between corn consumption and obesity in America, but that the increase in obesity is almost exactly the same as the increase in the percentage of corn grown in the United States that is genetically modified. These relationships are much closer than those between simple calorie intake and obesity (although obesity keeps increasing, calorie intake does not).
The researchers believe the particular genetic changes that have been made to the corn are to blame. Genetically modified corn has had special genes inserted that make the corn produce its own insecticide. Many insecticides and herbicides, such as chlorpyrifos, are known to have obesogenic effects, i.e. to cause weight gain.
Obesogens come in different varieties. Some, like BPA, can make you overeat by stimulating the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is intimately involved in the regulation of appetite and reward. At background levels now common in U.S. waterways, BPA is known to make small fish gorge and become fat.
Other chemicals, like chlorpyrifos and PFAS, silently reduce the body’s metabolic demands, meaning that fewer calories are burned at rest. Over a time period of months or years, even small reductions in caloric expenditure can lead to significant weight gain if there isn’t a corresponding reduction in caloric intake. You can actually get fat just by eating exactly the same amount of food as before. A new study has shown that the resting energy expenditure of American adults has been reduced significantly since the 1990s, with women experiencing a 5.4 percent and men a 7.7 percent drop.
If you asked me to name a policy change that would transform the United States overnight, I’d be hard pressed to find a better answer than this: end the system of corn subsidies. Indeed, if I were RFK Jr., who has pledged to make the health of the nation his top priority, the corn subsidies would be my main target, above even the vaccine manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.
However great the crimes of Pfizer or Moderna or the Sackler family may be, it’s the corporate food producers who have led Americans furthest down the primrose path, away from health, happiness, and self-reliance towards sickness, depression, and dependence. So many other evils including the unprecedented medicalization—the pain pills, the anti-depressants, the insulin and the Ozempic—are largely epiphenomenal on the fact that for well over 50 years Americans have been stuffing themselves with foods that serve the interests of corporate power rather than their own.
All that taxpayer money could be put to much better use, for instance subsidising real farming of the kind the Mexicans want to pursue but can’t, because the greed and insane priorities of the American corn racket—the American system, full stop—won’t let them. If we could begin to heal the American people, we could begin to heal American politics and commerce—and that would have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world, too.