Friday, September 12, 2008

King Corn & the Heirlooms

I have been struggling to read, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for about a year. This is not because I don't love the book, it's because I have experienced a life-long struggle to sit down and read. So, I've read it in small, memorable chunks.

One of the most eye-opening parts of the book (so far) talks about the genetic modification and homogenization of foods to the point where we no longer have species variety. Delicate, interesting and nutritious crops have been replaced by durable, but flavorless crops that are able to withstand long truck- and plane-rides across state and country borders. She offers the example of heirloom tomatoes in this case, and mentions the efforts of determined people to preserve and promote the many delicious varieties that have slowly been replaced by grainy, nasty supermarket tomatoes.

I was thrilled to come across a vendor on Saturday selling about 10 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for $3/pound (the same price as the disgusting potato-flavored Fuji apples I bought at my local grocery store — potapples, I'm calling them). The colors are amazing, and some of them resemble other fruits altogether. One looks like a tiny watermelon. Sliced and sprinkled with some salt and pepper, they each have a distinct and wonderful flavor.

We recently watched the documentary King Corn, which follows two young men from Somerville (John recognized the street view at the start of the movie) to Iowa, where they plant an acre of corn, talk openly (and non-judgmentally) with local farmers, and follow their grains of corn as they are distributed throughout the country. The corn they (and the other farmers) are growing in the area is inedible. Like my potapple, the corn contains a huge amount of starch, and absolutely no sweetness or flavor. (It is also genetically resistant to certain herbicides used to kill crop weeds.) The filmmakers show that the colorful varieties of corn that once grew in the Midwest have been entirely replaced by this corn, completely subsidized by the government, which primarily makes its way to either livestock feed (which it slowly kills due to its unnatural acidity) or high fructose corn syrup factories. The chemical process used to create high fructose corn syrup (which is a main ingredient in almost everything on a grocery store shelf) from this high starch corn seems so elaborate and unnecessary, particularly when the end product has zero nutritional value. On the contrary, it is easy to conclude that it is the cause of many health problems. So, why is our government encouraging this process?

Again, the filmmakers did a great job of letting the viewer make his/her own decisions about the current agricultural laws and this crazy corn process. They allowed a corn syrup factory spokeswoman to share, uninterrupted, what was clearly heavily rehearsed propaganda. It was creepy.

What if, instead, the government subsidized these corn crops for the purpose of creating something both useful and timely, such as "plastic" biodegradable products made from corn. Friends and I were thrilled to see that one of our favorite places to grab lunch started using biodegradable corn-based 'plastic' for their to-go beverages. Why is there a high cost for this uncommon eco-product, while overly sweetened sodas are overly affordable and excessively promoted?

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