Corn: America’s Super-Vegetable

Today in America, corn is the number one crop. It’s in almost everything, from every variety of food to gasoline. In fact, this country now has a majority of its food industry based on the single grain. How did corn become so prevalent, and what are the consequences of having a food system so reliant on it?

America’s dependence on cheap and abundant corn all started during the Nixon administration, in the 1970s. After a terrible crop and huge exports of grain to Russia, grain price up shot up, and food prices soon followed. Some foods, like bread and tortillas, were directly impacted. Other foods, such as beef and pork, were indirectly affected; feeding animals became more expensive, and the price of meat had to go up to cover costs. With an alarming percentage of citizens unable to buy food and riots erupting, Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture at the time, was tasked with ending this “scare”. Unfortunately, he did his job far too well.

First, he eliminated the Ever-Normal Granary(America’s storage closet to regulate grain prices for drought years), and passed the Farm Act of 1973. Now, instead of having government indirectly supporting corn and guaranteeing a price floor so farmers would be insured a basic income, the free market would now decide corn prices. Although this policy didn’t seem harmful, crop prices now had the potential to plummet, which could lead to hordes of bankrupt farmers.

Butz then convinced farmers to plant as much corn as possible on all available land, saying they had to “get big or get out”. Although growers were (rightfully) concerned that too much corn in the market would lead to falling prices and lower profits, he promised that the government would buy any surplus. Even if prices fell dramatically as predicted, farmers would still make a stable income if they grew enough. As corn had higher yields than other crops, farmers heedlessly produced as much as they could. Since there was so much corn in the market, no farmer could sell it for the original price: buyers would just buy from someone else, and the lower selling price would be cushioned by the surplus. With every farmer having this rationale, prices plummeted, cutting dangerously into their income. Even though farmers were able to sell everything they had produced because of their deal with the government, they were worse off overall.

Earl Butz had succeeded in bringing food prices down. However, farmers were facing a bleak situation. Income was at an all-time low, and their loans to buy new technology(to increase production) were exorbitant due to high interest rates at the time. Almost every farmer was deep in debt at this point, and the government had to bail them out with billions of dollars in subsidies. This gesture wasn’t enough for many, however, and many farms were forced to shut down. These failed farms added on to industrial farms(agribusiness), making them even more powerful. As large farms are able to produce the most crop and sell it at the lowest price, smaller farms can’t compete, and today, agribusiness controls over 90% of the corn market.

With a limit to how much corn America could sell to its own people and internationally, it naturally had to find new uses for the considerable surplus. Corn’s greatest purpose has been found in the meat industry. As corn became more inexpensive, agribusiness realized that instead of costly pastures, corn feedlots could be used as a cheaper and more efficient way to feed animals. With small farms and pastures dying out, agribusiness’s feedlots became widespread; today, America’s meat industry is controlled by four companies who use about half of the corn grown in the U.S.

An entire forty percent of corn grown in the U.S. goes towards producing ethanol, a renewable energy source. After the late 1970s, America decided to reduce its carbon footprint by incorporating ethanol into gasoline. Starting with a 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol blend(E10), federal legislation has continually pushed for less oil consumption, leading to blends with up to 85% ethanol(E85). Additionally, automobile companies have been urged/forced to produce cars capable of running on fuel with such high ethanol concentration. While opposition claims that use of ethanol actually hurts America’s economy and environment, indirectly increasing the carbon footprint and driving up food prices, recent presidents have added billions in ethanol subsidies, suggesting that for better or worse, use of this biofuel will continue to grow.

Of the remaining ~10 percent, most is exported, while the rest goes towards high-fructose corn syrup manufacturing. Over the years, corn syrup has almost completely replaced sugar in most processed foods. After soft drink corporations’ radical decision to replace sugar with corn syrup in 1984, this inexpensive substitute makes up 60% of the average American’s sweetener consumption today, compared to a paltry 5% in 1975.

Looking at today’s data, this country’s food system seems to be working. Food has become cheaper, and today Americans only spend about 10% of their disposable income on food, compared to the 15% in 1970. However, these improvements have severe consequences. With increasing demand for corn(ethanol), more and more farmland is set aside for corn; that means millions less acres of wheat, barley, and other crops are grown annually, resulting in less agricultural diversity. Unfortunately, this is just the first of several problems with America’s system.

Most alarmingly, corn prices are volatile. Without the Ever-Normal Granary or any other federal storage system, one bad drought or disaster could make corn prices skyrocket. Look at 2012: because of a drought in Iowa, where most of America’s corn is grown, prices nearly tripled. With global warming becoming a prevalent issue in today’s society, there is even more risk of another terrible crop.

Additionally, corn production is an environmental concern, the kind of issue heavily scrutinized in the twenty-first century. As well as consuming an unimaginable amount of water, cornfield soil is continually pumped with nitrogen, allowing farmers to grow much more than the soil would naturally allow. Worst of all, runoff from the massive amounts of fertilizer used contaminates nearby water sources, while feedlots’ waste poisons the air with hydrogen sulfide and other poisonous gases. America needs its food, but industrial farms have proven to be a pretty ineffective way to grow it.  

So, what’s the solution then? First off, some sort of storage system should be brought back. If there is a bad crop, a stockpile of corn could make up for the decreased supply in the market, making prices lower than they would be otherwise. Having more corn available would mean people would be less desperate to buy it, keeping prices stable. With this benefit in mind, the storage costs seem justified. Additionally, there should be a lot less emphasis on ethanol. Although it is a cheap renewable energy source, exactly what America is looking for, the environmental costs are high when compared to gasoline’s effect on the environment, defeating the purpose of using ethanol in the first place. To really reduce the carbon footprint, Congress should mandate a mile-per-gallon minimum for car companies(for the near future, rather than in 10 years) and continue to invest in/subsidize alternative energy, especially solar power. Hopefully, Americans will be able to see “King Corn” hang up his crown sometime in the near future.

Inspired by The Omnivore’s Dilema, by Michael Pollan

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