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Aug 26 2008

The politics of food-4: The dominance of corn

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the things that I had not fully appreciated was how dominant corn is in our diet. Like most people, I am only rarely conscious of actually eating corn, usually during the summer months when it appears in the produce section of the supermarket or when I eat tacos. But it turns out that we all consume a vastly greater amount of corn than we perhaps realize. In fact, corn is the colossus in the American food chain, dominating everything.

To get a sense of the magnitude that corn plays in our lives, here are some numbers. The annual harvest of corn in the US is about ten billion bushels (p. 85). . One bushel of corn is defined to be 56 pounds exactly. This is for shelled corn, after the husks and cob have been removed. The number of kernels in a bushel is approximately 72,800.

The amount of corn we eat directly as corn is less than one bushel per year person or less than 3% of the total. The rest has gone into the production of beef, chicken, pork, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, snacks, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, matodextrin, ethanol (for alcohol and for cars), sorbitol, mannitol, xanthan gum, MSG, etc. (p. 85, 86)

So how did we end up growing so much corn anyway?

Part of the growth in production came with the development of new hybrid seed varieties in the 1930s followed by the introduction of synthetic chemical fertilizers in the 1950s. Then in 1973 the government began establishing a ‘target price’ for corn that makes up as direct payments to the farmer for some of the difference between the target price and the sale price. The later explosive growth of corn is the direct result of this new system of farming subsidies that exists to this day and encourages farmers to grow more and more corn.

Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow – and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn . . . Iowa State University estimates it costs roughly $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn; in October 2005 Iowa grain elevators were paying $1.45 . . . Yet the corn keeps coming, more of it every year. (p. 53)
. . .
This is a system designed to keep production high and prices low. In fact, it’s designed to drive prices even lower, since handing farmers deficiency payments (as compared to the previous system of providing loans to support prices) encourages them to produce as much corn as they possibly can, and then dump it all on the market no matter what the price – a practice that inevitably pushes prices even lower. (p. 62)

Corn production went from a 1920 average of 20 bushels/acre to a present output of 200 bushels/acre. (p. 37) This massive production increase now placed demands on finding ways to dispose of the corn. A human being can eat about 1,500 pounds of food per year in all its forms. (p. 94) You cannot force people to eat more food, let alone more corn. The only way to increase corn consumption is to use it to replace, directly or indirectly, other things in our diet, and even in our energy supplies.

Moving that mountain of cheap corn – finding the people and animals to consume it, the cars that burn it, the new products to absorb it, and the nations to import it – has become the principal task of the industrial food system, since the supply of corn vastly exceeds the demand. (p. 62)
. . .
To help dispose of the rising mountain of cheap corn farmers were now producing, the government did everything it could to help wean cattle off grass and onto corn, by subsidizing the building of feedlots (through tax breaks) and promoting a grading system based on marbling of beef that favored corn-fed over grass-fed beef. (The government also exempted CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] from most clean air and clean water laws.) (p. 200)

Thus the government and researchers have deliberately tried to switch the diet of cattle from grass, which they have evolved to eat, to corn, since animals can be made to grow faster on a corn diet than on grass and growing grass requires more land. As a result of this push, about 60% of the commodity corn produced in the US goes towards feeding livestock. (p. 86) Federal mandates have also pushed for corn surpluses in the form of ethanol to be used to dilute gasoline. (p. 111)

And yet, the corn keeps coming, more and more, like an overflowing dam that will eventually drown us.

Next: How corn dominates our diet.

POST SCRIPT: Beauty contest for nuns?

An Italian priest, annoyed by what he feels is the unfair negative image that nuns have, has organized a beauty contest to show off their looks and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

But he says that they will not be required to pose in swimsuits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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