grinding corn with an axe

I read an article over the weekend in the July 2006 issue of Smithsonian that I found both interesting and disappointing. The article is titled What's Eating America and it's written by Michael Pollan.

If I were a Journalism professor I'd admire the writing style of the piece but make the student rewrite the piece since the conclusions don't follow the facts, and the clear writing style make that quite plain. This is ironic because the article isn't written by a student; Pollan is a professor of Jornalism at UC Berkeley.

The article relates the historical relationship mankind has had with corn. It delves into how much of a change in modern history has resulted from the cooperative effort between chemistry developed for the munitions industry and the subsequent use of that technology by agriculture.

Essentially Pollan's argument is that:
  • Life requires energy that is directly or indirectly derived from the sun.
  • Corn is about the most efficient plant for converting sunlight into sugar.
  • Corn requires much more nitrogen in its soil than most other plants.
  • Nitrogen, while plentiful in the atmosphere, is in short supply in soil.
  • This fact limits the amount of animal life that can be supported by the planet.
  • Fritz Haber, a German scientist, in 1909 figured out how to create nitrates from atmospheric nitrogen.
  • Excess soil nitrogen (fertilizer) has caused all the world's problems by allowing rampant human population expansion with corn being the enabler.
That's the gist of his argument, at least. What bothers me about it is that Pollan concludes from this that we should return to using natural farming methods that don't use artificial fertilizers. Organic farming. The problem with this is that early in the article Pollan declares that billions of people are alive today only through the intervention of the use of synthetic fertilizer. That natural processes for "fixing" nitrogen into the soil are inadequate to support the current population. How then could be go back solely to organic farming without a serious reduction in population?

Pollan also tries a subtle emotional argument by relating Haber's later work for the German war effort in both World Wars. It's a subtle approach because Pollan's stated reason for relating this information is to explain why people have never heard of Haber. This is silly because anyone who studies chemistry does come across Haber's name. He won the 1918 Nobel Prize and his name appears in many a Chemistry textbook. However by associating Pollan's name and his work with Nazi Germany Pollan tries to shift the readers opinion of the value of Haber's invention.

As I reread the article I find myself impressed by Pollan's efforts. Over and over he adds subtle emotional nudges to try to influence opinion in much the way that pollsters will change the wording of a politicians speech. Pollan refers to hybrid corn as a factory a number of times and associates it with petroleum more than once, even going so far as to suggest that when we eat corn we're essentially sipping fossil fuels.

This article is a masterful lesson in how to take accurate facts and use them to shift public opinion in a direction not indicated by those facts. It's well worth reading but do keep in mind what Pollan's really up to.


kenju said…
I have not read the article yet, Dave, but it seems to me from what you write that he wants it both ways. Wonder what his agenda is?
utenzi said…
He's a natural food guy. I read some background on him on the Web, Judy, and he sounds quite interesting. I might buy the book this article is excerpted from. I doubt I'll agree with his conclusions-- but he's honest about the facts so you just have to watch the logic he uses carefully. He's a very good writer and he can be quite persuasive.
Tracie said…
I am going to have to read that article--It is a subject that I dont' know much about, and his accuarte facts sound interesting.

"Eating corn is essentially sipping fossil fuels"?? That definately seems like a pretty far stretch.--I'll be on the look-out for Pollan's opinion mixed in.

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