Not on a cob. Not served with peas. But in your soft drinks, condiments, fast food, and salad dressing. The term ‘corn-fed’ once harkened back to Midwestern children with rosy cheeks, but has taken on a whole new meaning with the pervasiveness of industrialized corn. Whether the average American consumer is aware or not, we have all become ‘corn-fed.’ Professor and activist Michael Pollan notes that the failure to see ourselves as such reflects “either a failure of imagination or a triumph of capitalism.”
Although the green and golden waves of corn encountered on road trips appear to reflect a peaceful rural America, these fields are truly conflict zones between government-sponsored consumerism and the desire to preserve health and the environment.
To keep up with population growth, rising fast food demands, and the globalization of the US food economy, we rely heavily upon industrial corn as a cheap source of energy. Despite the federal government’s consistently active role in agriculture, its annual $5 billion dollars toward the corn industry beg the question, who benefits from these subsidies? It is certainly not the farmer nor the health of the consumer.
USDA deficiency payments “encourag[e] farmers to produce as much corn as they possibly can, and then dump it all on the market no matter the price”―a process that ensures that farmers can only prevent bankruptcy by continuing to produce more and more corn and sell at lower and lower prices. The government created a system wherein it is impractical for farmers to grow anything but corn, diminishing the practice of crop rotation and leading to a monoculture that strips the soil of essential nutrients. “So,” as Pollan eloquently articulates, “the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers, degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury.”
Corn is primarily processed into derivatives such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or used as feed on industrial livestock farms. Given that the government signs off on “farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing,” “the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” This is especially evident in the widespread use of high fructose corn syrup. In conjunction with government subsidies of corn, corn refiners secured tariffs on imported sugarcane, making high fructose corn syrup the least expensive sweetener on the market.
Corn’s easy availability radically changed the way businesses market; soda companies began supersizing their drinks when HFCS enabled them to produce their products for less. The overconsumption of soda―which contributes largely to this country’s obesity epidemic―is fostered by industrial corn, highlighting the painfully evident role of our government in perpetuating an unhealthy America.
Despite the prevalence of open pastures and idyllic farms on beef packaging, these conditions rarely reflect reality. Agribusinesses that confine livestock to crowded pens and force them to gorge on corn have largely replaced the small-scale farming pictured on labels. The use of corn as cheap and efficient feed has led to significant health ailments in livestock―including acidosis and larger populations of bacteria.
A study by USDA microbiologist Jim Russell indicated that switching a cow’s diet from corn to grass (their natural diet) for the last few days of its life “reduces the population of E. coli 0157:H7 in the animal’s gut by as much as 80 percent;” nevertheless, the cattle industry and USDA deemed this method “wildly impractical.” Government subsidies render corn significantly cheaper than feed alternatives, so its use continues despite the health implications to the animal.
Furthermore, “many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef.” Although less expensive due to governmental involvement, “corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass.” Our reliance on corn in the livestock industry has severe health implications for both the animal and the consumer.
However, implementing any change in our food system would require widespread governmental change. Operating within the current system, it is impossible for farmers eking out livings to minimize their dependence on corn. Given that only 14% of subsidies are allocated to non-commodity crops (fruits and vegetables) and 50% of subsidies are allocated to commodity crops like corn, it will remain infeasible to lessen our reliance on corn without reallocation of government funds. Moreover, having taken root in Midwest plains, McDonald’s chains, and the pockets of taxpayers, industrial corn’s place in the fields and plates of America has been secured.