Corn Country

Corn Country

rilled corn on the cob smeared with butter. Heirloom tomato and corn salads. Corn bread baked in your grandmother’s cast iron skillet. Many Americans associate corn with the pleasures of summertime, a grain always present at barbecues, beach bonfires and in your seasonal CSA box. But the juices that slide down your chin at every family reunion makes up only about 2 percent of the corn grown in this country. The rest of it, “field corn,” is grown for purposes ranging from supplementing processed foods and other manufactured products to feeding livestock. In 2009 the United States produced 13,100 mbu (million bushels per unit) of corn. Only 10 percent was processed into food for human consumption; 15 percent was exported, 44 percent fed livestock and 34 percent contributed to ethanol.[i]

A brief timeline

Corn Today

Corn is criticized mostly because it is backed by billions of dollars in government subsidies. As a grain, corn contains Vitamins B1 and B5 and several antioxidants, and before slathering it with butter, an average sized ear of corn contains approximately 75 calories and only 1 gram of fat.[iii] But as a commodity, farmers are provided direct cash payments as incentives to produce as much corn as they possibly can per acre. Much of this cheaply produced corn is processed, packaged and shipped to your nearest grocery store.

According to the Food Market Institute, the average number of items carried in a supermarket in 2010 numbered 38,718. Approximately one quarter of those products contain corn or a by-product of corn.[iv] Some of the corn-filled products are obvious, such as carbonated drinks, breakfast cereal or processed foods like ketchup and mayonnaise, but corn is also used in instant coffee, shoe polish, disposable diapers, toothpaste and wallpaper.

With many American diets consisting largely of corn-fed beef, fast food and processed food products, corn also shares blame for fueling the nation’s obesity epidemic. Corn refiners disagree, but until healthy foods are as affordable or more affordable than their corn-filled counterparts, health can often be linked to your socio-economic status. Activists have pushed for tougher labeling laws and junk food taxes to help dissuade consumers from choosing unhealthy options.

Joel Salatin offered a new vision in the documentary, Food Inc., when he said: “Imagine what it would be if, as a national policy, we said we would be only successful if we had fewer people going to the hospital next year than last year? The idea then would be to have such nutritionally dense, unadulterated food that people who ate it actually felt better, had more energy and weren’t sick as much. Now that’s a noble goal.” The debate over corn, subsidies and health rage on, but in the end, we’ve subsidized a product for $20 billion a year that allows for the cheapest calories to be supported instead of the most nutritious.


[i] “U.S. Production and Use.” Iowa Corn Growers Association. 04 Sept. 2011. <>

[ii ] Pollan, M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. (New York, New York. Penguin Publishing Group, 2006), pp. 31.

[iii] What nutrients does sweet corn contain? 04 Sept. 2011. <>

[iv] Pollan, M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. (New York, New York. Penguin Publishing Group, 2006), pp. 19.