James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 5, 2009

Why Don’t People Like Corn?

Filed under: agriculture,Feeding the world — Tags: , , — James @ 4:13 am
My favorite crop, but many people don't seem to care for it these days.

My favorite crop, but many people don't seem to care for it these days.

I read an interesting question on the still growing thread on the problems with CSI: Miami’s “Bad Seed” episode.

Between this episode and some other stuff I’ve heard about corn, I started wondering what all the concern is about corn lately. … Can you now help shine some light on why the corn industry has been getting such a bad reputation lately?

I’m really not sure about the answer to this question. My best guess is that the declining reputation of corn has to do with our transition from a society where our biggest food concern was not having enough to eat, to one where we worry more about eating too much rather than not enough.

The major grains, especially corn, rice, and wheat are very good at producing lots and lots of calories. For most of human history that’s been a very good thing because there often wasn’t enough food to feed everyone who was hungry. But even though there are still 800 million people around the world who aren’t getting enough to eat, in the US we’re now more concerned about getting too many calories and getting fat instead of not enough and starving.

That turns crops like corn, potatoes, rice, and wheat from miracles of productivity to “empty calories” because they they’re energy dense and at best only nutrient average. The newly favored foods are crops like spinach and tomatoes that don’t produce nearly as much caloric energy per acre but have more vitamins and minerals and hopefully are more filling per calorie.

And of the four big empty calorie foods, corn in the only one to be currently genetically engineered* and the least likely to evoke sympathetic responses because, of the four it is the least consumed by Americans in recognizable form (even though large parts of our diet depend on processed corn and corn-feed meat).

So that’s my guess. But I’m interested to hear what other people think. Why has corn become the red headed step-child of the foodie movement?

*Genetically engineered potatoes left the market as a result of pressure from major buyers worried about consumer acceptance, and GM wheat was put on hold for the same reason.


  1. I hadn’t realised several things until I read this article. I hadn’t realised there was a revolt against these foods, nor that the brake has been put on genetically modified potatoes and wheat in the U.S.A. (The latter point, I find reassuring.)

    In terms of diet . . . energy dense and warm, filling foods make sense when wanting to keep calory intake at a sensible level because they leave less room for snacking and sweets. I like tomatoes and spinach (both of them very much) but the idea of making putting them at the centre of my diet instead of potatoes and rice . . . uh! gives my stomach very uncomfortable feelings!


    Comment by Lucy Corrander — November 5, 2009 @ 4:33 am

  2. I suppose I’m not the person to be talking about what health conscious people eat. I was picturing the sort of people who seem to live on salads but personally I’ve been trying to base more of my meals on rice and dried beans which are neither local nor organic, but delicious, low on the food chain, cheap, and filling.

    There does seem to be a lot of misinformation floating around out there about what food is and isn’t genetically engineered. Do you think it would be helpful if I did a post on which crops currently are genetically engineered and which ones are often assumed to be but aren’t?

    Comment by James — November 5, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  3. I think that’s a great idea for a post! I would really appreciate that.

    To follow up on the Pollan/HFCS connection, isn’t Pollan the one who keeps saying “You find HFCS in everything, even bread! Why do you need HFCS in bread?!” which flat out ignores how leavened products are made – the yeast is alive and needs sugar to consume. All breads have sugar! And apparently for high-temp baking, HFCS are preferred because they caramelize at a higher temps than other sugars.

    Then people go to the grocery stores, read the labels and go “Ugh!” The HFCS/bread complaint I keep seeing repeated everywhere.

    Comment by Amy — November 5, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  4. That’s a great point about sugar and bread! Though I feel kind of like an idiot for not thinking about it myself when I read that in his book.

    I will try to do something detailed about what has and hasn’t been genetically engineered, and what traits were used by the end of the weekend and hopefully you will all help me catch any mistakes or oversights.

    I’m hoping to also do a rough outline of an “ask a biologist” website over the weekend that I’ll be asking for comments on, should be a nice change of pace after living and breathing NSF all week.

    Comment by James — November 5, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  5. Michael Pollan on corn (2002):

    here are two other really interesting Pollan pieces –

    “The Seed Conspiracy” (1994):
    written 3 years before the introduction of GMOs. I remember Peggy Lemaux saying once that people use the same rhetoric now against GMOs that they used to use against hybrids. Pollan definitely primed himself for his position on corporate GMOs.

    “Playing God in the Garden” (1998):
    Pollan plants Bt potatoes in his garden! and then doesn’t eat them. He talks with conventional growers and organic growers, along with a Monsanto rep (I doubt they’d send reps to hang out with him any more – let alone give him any more seeds). The description of the pest management practices on the two farms is especially good, although he doesn’t touch on the relative safety of organic vs conventional pesticides. He’s almost convinced by the pesticide reduction that goes along with Bt, but in the end cops that the conventional grower just shouldn’t grow Russets, ignoring the point that he makes about the grower following market demands. If the market demands Russets, isn’t the GM the lesser of two evils? But Pollan simply says we should change the market, but doesn’t describe how.

    Comment by Amy — November 6, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  6. The guy has mastered the art of sounding rational and reasonable about food while just saying pretty much whatever he wants. That’s why I’m looking forward so much to the Biofortified interview, hopefully they pin him to the wall enough to get some solid statements about his position on the technology as a matter of the public record.

    Though I doubt they’ll actually be able to have the kind of hard hitting interview I’d really like to read about.

    Comment by James — November 6, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  7. Well, Michael Pollan painted corn in a bad light in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Kindof. From the corn’s perspective, it’s doing great. From ours, corn has infiltrated every aspect of the food chain. He says, “corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey, and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia, and increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holstiens that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.”

    I’ve never seen any of those CSI shows, so I’m not sure if my answer is helpful or not. 🙂

    Comment by Liza Wheeler — November 5, 2009 @ 6:25 am

  8. You’re right. I was seeing Michael Pollen’s work as a symptom of the anti-corn sentiments, but thinking back to when Omnivore’s Dilemma came out, he did play an important roll in helping to shape current public perceptions of the plant.

    And from my limited experience you’re not missing much by not watching the CSI shows. Hard to believe 13 million people enjoy them enough to tune in every week.

    Comment by James — November 5, 2009 @ 9:46 am

  9. I agree with Liza: I think Pollan has a lot to do with it, as well as the “high fructose corn syrup” panic that’s been building for a while (is HFCS really that bad for you? Probably. But it’s not like honey or refined sugar are significantly better alternatives. I don’t believe that sugar from corn sources has magical properties that make it much worse than anything else, and I’d much much much much much rather have HFCS in my food than splenda, the aftertaste of which is my new least-favorite taste ever). I’m not sure who’s at the head of the anti-HCFS movement.

    Also there might be something coming from the sudden 180 everybody seems to have done on using ethanol for fuel: not that long ago, everybody was saying that ethanol was going to save us from global warming and peak oil and it would make everything better,* forever. People aren’t saying that anymore, even in Iowa, but I’m not sure why. Aside from some reports that ethanol makes air pollution worse, not better, and criticism because ethanol is carbon-neutral, I haven’t really heard anything about it. Perhaps those two things are enough.

    *In a different way, of course, people have been using ethanol to make everything better for millennia. . . .

    Comment by mr_subjunctive — November 5, 2009 @ 6:50 am

  10. Those are two great points. I’m guessing when gas and food prices spiked in the last couple of years, ethanol lost a lot of supporters since it was blamed for casing the second, and not mitigating the first. Steve Savage has a great post up on biofuels where he points out that ethanol was supposed to be a stop-gap method, not the solution itself. And that while it contributed to driving up food prices, there were three or four other issues too which created a perfect storm in 2007-2008.

    High fructose corn syrup is bad for you, but as you point out, so are other sugar sources, even the organic 100% cane sugar health-conscious people are now supposed to buy because the more locally produced beat sugar probably came from genetically engineered beats. (Which disregards the fact the sugar you buy at the grocery story is pure sucrose, and the proteins or DNA of the plant that created it are gone, but that’s a different rant.)

    I’m not sure which is cause and which is effect here though. Do people not like corn because they’re worried about the effects on HFCS or do people worry about HFCS because they don’t like corn?

    Comment by James — November 5, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  11. I was assuming the first: people don’t like corn because of its connection to HCFS. Though it occurred to me after leaving the comment that there may be an element of familiarity breeding contempt going on too: corn is in everything, so it’s easy to develop associations with it, positive or negative.

    Comment by mr_subjunctive — November 5, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  12. “corn is in everything, so it’s easy to develop associations with it, positive or negative.”
    That’s a very important point. Kiwis or dragonfruit are probably never going to be blamed for our food problems as a nation. The only real competition with corn for being in the most products is the soybean, and being what tofu is made of no doubt helps its image.

    Comment by James — November 5, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

  13. Well and there’s been some backlash against soy lately too: something about it being like female hormones, feminizing the men and similar garbage. I’d be surprised if evidence existed to support any of it, and I don’t think it has a lot of currency nationally, but it’s there.

    Really pretty much any sufficiently prominent staple food is going to be vilified by somebody. The people who think autism is caused by vaccinations (it isn’t!) occasionally claim that a wheatless diet will cure autism (it doesn’t!). Refined sugar has had a bad name for decades. I’m unable to think of any ways rice is allegedly bad, but I’m sure there must be something.

    Comment by mr_subjunctive — November 5, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  14. Children of the Corn.

    What more does it take?

    Comment by Mary — November 5, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

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