Crisis in the Corn Fields

Corn is just one of many crops that is causing a price meltdown on the world stage recently. But unlike wheat and rice, corn has been a source of political and social divisiveness for years in the international arena. From public health to foreign policy, corn is really just bad for everyone.


1. Ethanol
Corn prices have risen sharply -- nearly doubling just in the last few month -- almost entirely because refineries are using corn to produce ethanol, a gasoline additive that became popular among environmentalists who want to seek a more earth-friendly alternative and a way to get out of Middle East oil politics. But, now it seem like this is backfiring according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman:

The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a “scam.”

This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly “good” biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.

And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.

2. Farm Subsidies

The US government gives the corn industry billions of dollars in subsidies every year, creating tons of excess produce. Because of the excess US corn is shipped, redistributed (or dumped) in places like Mexico, and it is sold below market value. As a result Mexican farm workers are put out of jobs and look for greener pasteurs – in the United States. A considerable number of undocumented immigrants in the US are from south of the border are former farm workers.

3. Livestock

Corn is used to feed our livestock, particularly cows, hogs and chickens, because it is cheaper and quicker than the feed animals usually eat like grass. When you watch the film King Corn, you see the detrimental effects of this practice:

From King Corn’s website:

In Colorado, rancher Sue Jarrett says her cattle should be eating grass. But with a surplus of corn, it costs less to raise cattle in confinement than to let them roam free: “The mass production of corn drives the mass production of protein in confinement.” Animal nutritionists confirm that corn makes cows sick and beef fatty, but it also lets consumers eat a $1 hamburger. Feedlot owner Bob Bledsoe defends America’s cheap food, but as Ian and Curt see in Colorado, the world behind it can be stomach turning. At one feedlot, 100,000 cows stand shoulder-to-shoulder, doing their part to transform Iowa corn into millions of pounds of fat-streaked beef.

4. Food

Corn can be found in almost everything Americans eat, from hamburgers to soda. And it is having a bad effect on the nation’s diet. The following statistics are from United States Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics.

Rank of refined sugar, or sucrose, among most-used sweeteners in the U.S. in 1966: 1
Rank in 2007: 2
Rank of high-fructose corn syrup in 2007: 1

Estimated percentage of high-fructose corn syrup consumed from beverages: 66
Rank of soft drinks among top beverages consumed by Americans: 1

Minimum percentage of a soda that is made up of high-fructose corn syrup: 7
Maximum percentage: 14
Percentage by which high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar : 60

Average, in pounds, of high-fructose corn syrup consumed by an American in 1970: 0.6
Average, in pounds, consumed in 2000: 73.5

Size, in ounces, of McDonald’s Supersize soda, discontinued in 2004: 42
Size, in ouces, of McDonald’s new extra-large soda, Hugo, introduced in 2007: 42

Percentage of Americans categorized as overweight or obese in 1971 : 47.7
Percentage in 2004: 66
Percentage of American children categorized as overweight or obese in 1971: 4
Percentage in 2004: 17.5

Most importantly, let’s not forget that more Americans affected by the above percentages are generally low income folks and people of color.

5. American Farmers

When I talk about who is receiving the billions of dollars in farm subsidies, I am not talking about the small farmers in Iowa, even though most corn is grown in Iowa. Most subsidies go to “corporate farms.”


With this latest food crisis, don’t hold you breath to see if any of the presidential candidates to say anything about it.



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