Almighty Corn Overlords

Pollan, Michael.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma.  Pg 15-119.  Penguin Group, United States of America.

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We as humans like to believe the world bends to us, and that we have formed the society of present on the wills and desires on human beings alone.

This belief is misguided and short-sighted.

Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma discusses the impact and tremendous authority the unassuming Zea mays has over our civilization.  We use corn in a tremendous amount of ways, from eating corn on the cob itself, high-fructose corn syrup or corn starch.  An overwhelming amount of our food source is completely dependent on corn itself.  Pollan discusses this with an enticing set of examples, extrapolating the necessity of corn to not only our plant-based products but to our animal products as well.  As we are now, most livestock are fed on corn exclusively (which has nutritional issues, which must be supplemented) and as such, Pollan calls us “corn people,” due to our heavy reliance on the authoritative corn plant.  It’s not an exaggeration to state that almost everything you eat in a day is made possible by this plant.

When we consider what we have done to corn, we often assume that we have changed corn forever, but we often ignore what corn has done to us.  In selecting for corn, we have increased its fitness by allowing it to reproduce so successfully.  Corn’s wild ancestor, Teosinte, was a grass with markedly different morphological and developmental attributes compared to other grasses (Poaceae).  We have selected it to become a plant that is entirely dependent on us as its nitrogen demands are unrealistic, and it’s flower form offers questionable benefits, being wrapped in a stubborn husk with unnecessary seed density.  Pollan discusses that modern Zea mays cobs offer very little benefit in the wild, where their seeds sprout in dense clusters which cause needless competition where all the seeds end up dying.  It’s an interesting relationship we have developed with corn; though we believe we have made it a plant completely dependent on use, we often fail to realize that that dependence is not one-sided.  Pollan addresses this by stating: “Corn is the hero of its own story; and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest we have been calling the shots or acting always in our best interests.  Indeed, there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us” (Pg. 23).  Pollan isn’t afraid to boldly state how influential corn has been on our society, referring to its success as “world domination,” and it isn’t far from the truth.

Pollan’s writing style here seems noticeably different than the tone of “Botany of Desire.”  He writes here with a fairly commanding voice, strongly advocating this coevolutionary dependence that humans and corn have developed with each other.  He particularly emphasizes the necessity of both humans facilitating the production of corn, while corn has cleverly changed itself to become the ideal cereal for human utilization.  Though we commonly state that we have harnessed and controlled plants like corn for decades, perhaps we should be acknowledging our supreme overlords; Zea mays.


One thought on “Almighty Corn Overlords

  1. strychnostoxifera

    I really feel you accurately depicted the overall themes covered in this particular reading. Corn is literally everything, and now I’m hard-pressed to not look for corn in any product I consume. The coevolutionary significance you mention is quite a realistic assumption: corn and humans really have been living together and becoming dependent on one another for a pretty consistent period of time.

    Neat stuff.


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