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
- 1490s: Maize had been sustaining civilizations for centuries but it wasn’t until the 15th century that Christopher Columbus described the newly discovered plant to Queen Isabella’s court. Corn began as a survival crop, sustaining newly arrived pilgrims as both a fresh vegetable and storable grain.
- 1840s: Farmers eventually figured out how to harness its hybrid properties, “offering breeders what no other plant at the time could: the biological equivalent of a patent.”[ii] Farmers began buying new seeds before each planting season rather than relying on the reproduction of their own plants.
- 1830s: Technology advances during the Industrial Revolution include Cyrus McCormick creating the reaper which allowed quicker and cheaper harvesting of grain and John Deere creating the first steel plow to help speed up farming across the Midwest.
- 1920s and 1930s: The first iteration of agricultural subsidies begins as a response to the Great Depression. Legislation includes: The Grain Futures Act (1922), the Agricultural Marketing Act (1929) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933).
- 1947: With little need for ammonium nitrate (used to make explosives) after the second World War, the U.S. government chose to spread its surplus over farmland to use as fertilizer.
- 1950s and 1960s: The feedlot concept popularizes as cheap corn makes it easy to fatten cattle on corn instead of grass and to raise chicken in large factories.
- 1968: The first version of high-fructose corn syrup is produced for commercial use.
- 1973: President Richard Nixon signed the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act into law. The new bill reflected the goals of Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who championed an expanded system of government price supports that encouraged all-out corn production.
- 2007: U.S. corn farmers harvested more than 13 billion bushels of corn in the fall of 2007, surpassing their previous record by more than a billion bushels and achieving the nation’s largest corn harvest ever.
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. <http://www.iowacorn.org/index.cfm?nodeID=30315>
[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? Answers.com. 04 Sept. 2011. <http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_nutrients_does_sweet_corn_contain#ixzz1T4JKeGUf>
[iv] Pollan, M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. (New York, New York. Penguin Publishing Group, 2006), pp. 19.