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King Corn

by Chuck Wellborn  

Where'd You Get That?

Remember how Mom would see you putting something in your mouth that she didn't give you and say that? She wanted to know where it came from.

Maybe moms should be saying that more these days, and maybe kids should be asking their moms the same thing.

There's an awful lot of unhealthy food out there that is contributing to the diabetes and obesity epidemic afflicting our citizens.

It's just another reason to be growing and producing more and more food locally and finding more ways to make it easily available to consumers.
What brought this to mind is King Corn, the documentary, that was shown at the local Guild Cinema in December. Sorry to say I missed it. (Put another one on the Netflix queue).

So how much corn do we need?

The story of today's food processors and their ubiquitous use of corn in their products has been well told by Michael Pollan in his "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Barbara Kingsolver in her "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle".

According to the local reviews in IQ and the Alibi, the King Corn film does a good job of covering the amazing story of how corn became the raw material of choice for today's processed food industries, including both food and drink.

You didn't know these food processors largely serve corn? Well what do you think makes cola drinks so sweet? High-fructose corn syrup, of course. It's not just really sweet. It's also cheaper than sugar because of tariffs placed on imported sugarcane at the behest of corn refiners.

Fast food

What about the food processors that bring us fast food? Let us count the ways they use corn. Chicken nuggets actually do have chicken in them these days. But lots of other processed foods in the nuggets are derived from corn. That includes stabilizers, thickeners, gels and "viscosity-control agents" says Michael Pollan. Pollan also notes that in one popular brand of chicken nugget, 13 of the 38 ingredients in the chicken nugget are made from corn.

Oh, and don't forget the ingredients in the chickens themselves. They were raised on cheap corn.

Look at fast food burgers. Beef cattle may be genetically geared to eat grass but that's not to say that with enough drugs and flatulence they can't be fattened up with good old corn. It's a lot faster than waiting for cattle to fatten up on pasture grass. And cheaper.

It's surprising how much corn is unknowingly consumed by all of us. But the reason becomes obvious. When food became an industrial process, what mattered most was using the cheapest available raw materials. In this case it's corn.

What made corn so cheap?

It's because tax dollars are used to subsidize the price of corn. When Michael Pollan wrote "Omnivore" in 2006, he estimated it cost about a $1 more to produce an Iowa bushel of corn than that bushel would bring in the open market. But with government subsidizing the price no matter how much is produced, farmers are encouraged to grow more and more of it, even if takes tons of chemical fertilizers to overcome the adverse effects of this monoculture.

As noted below, the price of corn has recently risen but as a result of some market intervention by government: subsidies to ethanol producers and a congressional mandate to use corn to make ethanol.

One might ask, why doesn't Congress provide more support for fruit and vegetable farmers? Consumers have shown they want more fresh produce and as more find that fresh produce is healthy and tasty demand will increase.

The answer is that large grain buyers have lots more political clout in Congress than do local farmers and their supporters.

Corn, corn everywhere

Once the food processors selected corn as their principal raw material, the next thing they did was to have their food scientists learn how else they could use corn in their processed food products. This was a successful effort as noted above in regard to chicken nuggets but it's equally true in regard to everything from French fries to the fast food taco.

One more depressing fact from the Pollan book: since the advent of corn subsidies almost 40 years ago, farmers in the U.S. have managed to produce 500 additional calories for each one of us every day. Is it coincidental that obesity and Type II diabetes in the U.S. have increased so much since that time? Barbara Kingsolver says "We all subsidize the cheap calories with our tax dollars, the strategists make fortunes, and overweight consumers get blamed for the violation. The perfect crime."

Hey, let's use corn in ethanol

Now here comes the ethanol boom that is making the market for corn even less rational. Congress mandated the use of ethanol as automobile fuel and the use of corn kernels to make the ethanol. Congress also provided subsidies for ethanol production, again adding to demand.

But the resulting demand for corn increased its price substantially and, consequently, spurred even more corn production. Worldwide grain prices went so high that social unrest by consumers is a serious problem in other countries. Adding to the pain, the increased use of corn has also led to increase in the price of processed foods containing corn here at home.

Belatedly, more attention has been given to the fact that the energy required to turn corn into ethanol is nearly as great as the energy that can be produced from burning that ethanol.  Not a great tradeoff.

It's not clear that replacing 10 per cent of America's motor fuel with biofuels is possible without changing over to corn a substantial amount of cropland now devoted to cereals, oilseeds and sugar crops.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that current ethanol demand and the infrastructure to transport it to market are lagging behind the capacities of the 131 refineries now operating, much less those of the 70 other refineries under construction. As a result, there is now overproduction of ethanol and a consequent lessening demand for corn. So now what? Who knows?

Post script

Any discussion of this subject would not be complete without considering the effects of all this on our friends to the south. NAFTA allowed U.S. corn producers in previous years to sell corn in Mexico without any import duties. Because NAFTA didn't prohibit government subsidies to U.S. corn producers, the U.S.-produced corn was priced low enough to drive many Mexican corn farmers out of business-and perhaps into the ranks of illegal immigrants.

Then when ethanol producers this year bid up corn prices here in the U.S., Mexicans couldn't afford U.S. corn and too few local producers remained to meet the demand for corn to be used for tortillas, leading to food riots. Perhaps the ethanol glut is coming to their rescue.

What a mess!

Two lessons: First, it's seldom smart to try to try to manipulate either markets or Mother Nature. Second, the food industry is not the best place for an industrial mindset.



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