Corny Considerations

photo of a corn man sculpture in claySeems that corn, in one form or another, is a dominant subject in much of the news these days.   Between the very justified villainization of high-fructose corn syrup that’s infiltrating nearly every otherwise healthful food product to the demand for corn-based biofuel causing a rise in the cost of meats to stories about how corn crops are edging out other crops, corn is making headlines.

With that in mind, several themes that revolve around this common topic – corn – have been swirling around in my brain lately…

Are We Children of the Corn?

I’ve just begun reading Michael Pollan’s
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals in which he traces, step by step, the journey our food takes from the soil to the plate.   I’m not far into the book and already it’s some very thought-provoking stuff.   Pollan contends that we are indeed what we eat — and what we eat remakes the world.   And what we eat, by and large, is corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak.   Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.   The eggs are made of corn.   The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Pollan goes to to make the corn connection to a vast array of many of the other foods we purchase & consume – 1 in every 4 items for sale in the average American supermarket contains corn.   A staggering number of even the non-consumable items in your local stores are derivatives of Zea mays, the giant tropical grass we know as corn.   In fact, the Ontario Corn Producers Association insists that there are A Zillion Uses for Corn!   Given how most of the corn grown in this country is processed into unrecognizable bits & pieces, you may never look at a cornfield – or the food in your shopping cart – the same way again…

The Bitter Taste of Corn Sweeteners

In 2006 alone, more than 700 million bushels of corn were refined into corn sweeteners – primarily High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).   Read the labels on beverages & foods and you’ll find HFCS has insidiously wormed its way into all kinds of foods you might never suspect – lunch meats, whole-wheat breads, crackers, salad dressings, soups, cheese, milk, yogurt, vitamins, and even medicines.   Perhaps worse yet, many of the foods laced with this nasty stuff are promoted as being suitable for a healthy lifestyle or weight loss!

Despite the considerable processing required to create HFCS, it’s considerably cheaper, easier to transport, and much sweeter than sugar.   In part, this is because our government artificially fixes sugar prices while heavily subsidizing corn.   But the net result is that this translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers, so there’ a tremendous economics incentive for them to use corn-based sweeteners.   Since HFCS comes from corn, products that feature it can be billed as "natural" foods but this couldn’t be further from the truth.   In fact, the process of breaking down cornstarch into syrup requires 3 different enzymes – the first of which, alpha-amylase, is industrially produced by a bacterium.

Studies have linked a number of health issues with the use of HFCS.   Some suggest that HFCS may alter intracellular metabolism, which in turn facilitates accelerated aging through oxidative damage.   There’s also connections with HFCS contributing to obesity & diabetes.   So why are these health risks tolerated and the use of HFCS continuing to escalate?   Consumer apathy.   There are simply too few people thinking about the ingredients or nutritional value of the foods they ingest.   We’ve got to let our dollars do the talking – if enough consumers stop buying foods made with corn sweeteners, the producers will have little choice but to abandon the use of HFCS.

Biofuel Causing Corn Shortages?

Not enough that we use innumerable amounts of corn to fuel our bodies, we’ve now been snookered into using it to fuel our cars too.   But the use of corn-based biofuel seems to be coming at the expense of corn as a food crop.

I recently read about a surprising situation in David Bollier’s article on the Mexican corn crisis and although it isn’t quite the same, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Like Ireland’s potato, corn is a food that defines Mexico.   There’s evidence that corn was domesticated in central Mexico more than 7000 years ago and as early as 1500 BC, corn was a primary staple food for most South American and much of the North American cultures.   Corn, in the form of tortillas, is a critical mainstay of their diet & culture but tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer.   Why?   Biofuel.

Now it’s true that yellow corn earmarked (rimshot!) for fuel production is not the same variety used for food, but with the increased demand for biofuels, the corn destined for ethanol is fetching a significantly higher price.   So farmers in Mexico are enticed to grow that crop instead of corn for human and/or livestock consumption and instead import cheaper, food-grade white corn from us to offset.   Farmers here in the U.S. are failling prey to similar economic pressures.   Sounds simple, no?   It gets worse…

Not much more than a year ago, Mexico was exporting more than 137,000 tons of its annual corn crop.   Yet at the same time, Mexico is facing a corn shortage and is set to import more than 800,000 tons of corn for its people from the U.S. & other countries.   The price of tortillas has risen so dramatically that Mexicans have taken to mass protests in the streets.

Now it gets really interesting — statistically, the U.S. grew 42% of the world’s total corn crop last year but ethanol production is projected to consume half of our annual corn harvest by 2008.   So, the demand for biofuels is about to chew up 20% of the world’s corn harvest.

Despite the fact that there are other, potentially far more efficient non-food crop sources that can produce ethanol, the push for corn-based biofuel continues.   And this is accompanied by a score of problems:   it requires vast amounts of energy (including fossil fuel) & water to produce, it does nothing to encourage us to reduce our use of fossil fuel, it burns less efficiently than straight gasoline, & overall doesn’t have a net effect of reducing global-warming-causing pollution.   And since corn is heavily subsidized by the government, as the demand for corn-based ethanol to run our cars increases, so too do our taxes — those government subsidies have to come from somewhere, right?

Although I haven’t seen anything documenting this, it’s a safe bet that corn-based biofuel benefits "Big Oil" significantly.   It’s probably also a safe bet that those companies are already snapping up the farms that grow corn.   Once again, seems like a win-win scenario for "Big Oil."

Anybody else find this whole thing frustrating and/or "cornfusing?"
 

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