Biodiversity in our Fields and on our Plates: How We Can Move Away From Corn

Michael Pollan released his best-seller, ​Omnivore’s Dilemma, i​n 2006, and has since become a revered food-journalist and poster child for anti-industrial-agriculture discussion. He started his book with the foundation of modern-day food production and a staple in the American industrial diet: corn. Although we may not see or taste it, corn is pumped into a variety of processed foods in forms such as syrups, starches, preservatives, meat and animal byproducts, and an entire swath of chemical additives. He writes, “the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the forty-five thousand different items…in the supermarket—seventeen thousand new ones every year—represent genuine variety rather than so many clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant [corn]” (Pollan, 20).

Corn production is so heavily subsidized in the United States that we are producing an over-abundance of food, usually at a greater loss for the individual farmer (whose profits stem from the declining price per bushel while agri-technology corporations and food processors reap the benefits of cheap inputs). Kernels rot by the tons in grain silos or in fields; more and more are pumped into Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s); we consume corn in processed goods, which has opened new, uncapped markets for corn. Take, for example, the chicken nugget. Michael Pollan counted 38 ingredients needed to make a chicken nugget. Thirteen of those were derived from corn (Pollan, 113).

The environmental consequences from corn production are massive and in many ways unprecedented. Soil erosion from years of invasive ploughing threaten harvests; pesticides and herbicides further deplete any soil biodiversity that maintains healthy ecosystems and run into water tables; GMOs threaten the adaptability and resilience of the plant itself; and the tons of fossil-fuels needed to maintain the endless monocultures of corn through agri-technological machinery is enough to make your head spin.

The corn industry is working at such a large scale that it’s hard to imagine what our food systems would look like without it. But we can understand what corn and corn production is not: healthy, sustainable, biodiverse, and to most of us, it’s not local. The University of Rochester has paired with Harvest Table, a division of Aramark, which focuses on local, “clean” foods (that is, food with no chemicals or preservatives). Harvest Table implements standards for sustainability, including the certified humane treatment of animals, and works on smaller scales to ensure that as much food as possible is sourced locally to Rochester. New menus and educational pop-up events hosted by Dining Services throughout the semester encourage a biodiverse plate. This year, we can expect the introduction of several heritage grains to our dining halls (the anti-corn!). Didn’t know what a golden plum was? Several different varieties of stone fruit are now available (all of which I tried at the first Club Rochester of the year and couldn’t get enough of). Plant-forward meals encourage us to consider our meat consumption as an add-on to a meal rather than the staple of our diet (about 100 pounds of corn/soy will go into producing about 1 pound of meat). Change is good; new, diverse foods are ultimately better for the environment and for our own health. There is a lot to look forward to from Dining this year. Try to get as many colors on your plate as possible, and don’t be afraid to try out the new food! Love it? Don’t know what it is? Take a picture and send it to Team Green on Facebook!

Go green with Dining Team Green! Want more information on sustainability in dining? Follow us on ​Facebook​, ​Instagram​, and​ ​Twitter​ ​@ursustainibble. Contact us at​. We’d love to hear from you!

Photo provided by MaxPixel.

Guest Post Written by Sophia McRae, Class of 2019, Dining Team Green Sustainability Intern

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