The Omnivore's Dilemma


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Kate VandenBosch reflects on the journey of food to the plate.

I've seen ads for a new Food Network program called something like, "How'd that get to my plate?" That's what Michael Pollan does throughout The Omnivore's Dilemma. I wonder if they got the idea from him? If you are reading at the same pace as Rob, you may have arrived at Chapter 7, where Pollan describes the meal that has come to him, maybe in a Styrofoam box, after tracing its path through the industrial food chain.

As a plant biologist, I was interested in the more historical story, presented in Chapter 1, of corn’s domestication from the wild grass teosinte to a crop that would make it’s way to modern plates. Teosinte still grows in the wild in Mexico, so modern biologists have been able to compare it to the elite cultivars of modern corn to reconstruct the genetic changes that happened over millennia (1). There were many changes in the grass’ development: from a leafy, branched stem to a single stalk, from a file of a few seeds that shatters to an enlarged ear that retains the seeds, and from an undigestible seed to an important source of nutrition. This transformation apparently happened during the Neolithic due simple plant breeding by native Americans. One may wonder how they could have the foresight to establish a breeding program to make the many necessary changes to make corn edible. Amazingly, it turns out that a relatively small number of genes control these and other traits, so that only a few important mutations were needed to transform teosinte into something we would rerecognize. Of course, in modern times, breeders have continued to ‘improve’ corn by enhancing productivity and disease resistance, by working towards more efficient use of nutrients, and by introduction of engineered traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

For biologists, summer not only brings a chance to eat fresh, local foods. It’s also the season of professional meetings. I just returned from a meeting of the Canadian Society of Plant Physiologists, where a biologist from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation talked about the strategies the foundation will take to help end hunger in Africa. The Green Revolution that so improved access to nutrition in Mexico, India and elsewhere in the 20th century pretty much missed Africa, so the Gates Foundation has made a new partnership for an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (2). Like the old adage that starts, “If you give a man a fish, he will eat today…,? their strategy for developing self-sufficiency involves enhancing local food production to move beyond subsistence. In addition to aiding small farmers, mostly women, in new practices, the AGRA efforts will breed new crops that are drought resistant and well adapted to local conditions. They are concentrating on just a few crops: cassava, chickpeas, wheat, and…. corn.

Pollan presents corn as somewhat of a malevolent plant monster that has manipulated humans. It is the bad guy in the story of section I of the book. He is a persuasive writer, but what’s your viewpoint? Is the relationship between humans and corn a symbiosis gone awry? Or is corn a versatile resource that can do our bidding, from food to feed to raw material for fuel and renewable materials? Or something else?

(1) A good reference for those who want to get an introduction to the genetics of corn domestication is: Doebley, J.F., Gaut, B.S., and Smith, B.D. (2006) The Molecular Genetics of Crop Domesticaton. Cell 127: 1309 - 1321.

(2) See http://www.gatesfoundation.org/GlobalDevelopment/ for a description of the Gates Foundation’s efforts to improve agriculture in Africa, with a link to the Alliange for a Green Revolution in Africa.

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