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When corn is king

The ubiquitous vegetable is wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy, argues writer Michael Pollan

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Food may well be one of the biggest stories of the new century.

Witness the extensive news coverage of mad cow disease and E.coli contamination, and the controversies over growth hormones and genetic engineering. Modern-day Upton Sinclairs like Eric Schlossinger have given us exposés on the beef and fast-food industries. And the organic revolution has reached adulthood, with its coming out party on the cover of Newsweek last month.

So important has the food story become that the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, recently invited scientists, farmers, and government officials to talk to journalists about industrial food production, food-borne pathogens, and other issues in food writing.

Among those panelists was Michael Pollan – well-known for his groundbreaking books that explore the relationship between humans and nature. In "The Botany of Desire," Mr. Pollan looks at his garden in Connecticut and sees scheming arugula and plotting asparagus. We humans might think we control our agriculture and engineer our environment, but Pollan argues that plants use us as much as we use them. He follows the trail of the apple and the tulip to show how they cleverly manipulated American frontiersmen and Dutch merchants to extend their domain.

One plant has gone too far, however, according to the author. Pollan accuses corn of wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy.

Corn's place in the US economy is secure, judging by Congress's approval this spring of an unprecedented $190 billion farm-subsidy package. One of its largest beneficiaries was corn growers.

In an interview, Pollan talked about why he says that this brazen vegetable is calling the shots.

What exactly led you to corn?

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