Summary of “What’s Eating America” by Michael Pollan

The article, “What’s Eating America” was written by Michael Pollan. It explains the process of Nitrogen fixation as both an advantageous and disadvantageous process. In relation to corn, Pollan suggests that “fixing” nitrogen is helpful in increasing its yield. However, the process is harmful to some organisms including sea animals.

Pollan suggests that American diet is rooted in corn. He says that the crop is a staple diet to some parts like Mexico, and part of the diet of every America. He says, “Not to think of himself as a corn person suggests either a failure of imagination or a triumph of capitalism” (Pollan, n.d.). He also suggests that more than a quarter of products provided by every supermarket in the United States contain corn. This article also explains that corn is produced more in United States than any other part of the world. The turning point of corn and other types of food in United States then began in 1947 when energy used to make explosives was used instead to manufacture fertilizers.

Following manufacture of explosives in World War 2, USA found itself with surplus of ammonium nitrate. The government then used it as fertilizer in farms because it is a good source of Nitrogen for plants. The result of this was the F1 Hybrid corn which consumes more fertilizer than any other plant or crop.  The yields of corn increased tremendously in the 1950s after the introduction of fertilizer. The fertilizer was considered in the article as leftovers of World War II. What was used in war time as source of explosives was now used as source of fertilizer in peacetime, and that is Nitrogen.

Pollan explains the importance of Nitrogen; he says all life depends on it. Although the atmospheric Nitrogen is almost 80%, only a small amount of usable nitrogen can be supplied on earth. The reason is that the large percentage of nitrogen is tightly paired and non-reactive. However, Nitrogen atoms can be split and joined with hydrogen through a process called Nitrogen “fixing”. This is how fertilizers come about.

Before 1909, nitrogen on earth was fixed naturally by soil bacteria. Leguminous plants carried these soil bacteria on their roots. Later, Fritz Haber came up with the concept of nitrogen fixation. Pollan suggests that life on earth depends on nitrogen. Therefore, life before nitrogen fixation was limited to the nitrogen that was fixed by soil bacteria. With introduction of fertilizers, more life was support.

Despite the positive aspects of Nitrogen fixation, Pollan claims that there are problems related to it. When human life shifted from the reliance of solar energy to fossil fuel due to nitrogen fixation, pollution increased. This led to the management of corn farms on industrial principles, where inputs of raw materials (Chemical Fertilizers) are transformed into outputs of corn. The factories concerned with this transformation tend to pollute.  Pollan suggests that such factories produce more chemical fertilizers than is required by the hybrid corn. The synthetic nitrogen that plants don’t take then evaporates into the air and acidifies rain, hence contributing to global warming.

The course of action that Michael Pollan suggests is that farmers should nourish the soil without dumping a lot of nitrogen into the environment. He suggests that crop rotation and mixed farming can solve the problem of pollution through excessive production of fossil fuels. Animals are used to recycle nutrients on farms, hence save energy. The course of action I suggest is that the chemical fertilizers can be used in small amounts, just to augment the nutrients produced through crop rotation and animal use as suggested by Pollan. The idea is to create more fertility without polluting the environment. Only a small amount of fertilizers should be produced.


Reference list

Pollan, (n.d.). What’s Eating America?

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