King Corn

At the risk of sounding extremely nerdy (or maybe just pathetic) I spent several evenings watching a documentary called “King Corn.”  I watched it on Netflix, but it is also available in 6 parts on youtube.  While you used to be able to watch the video via youtube, now only a segment is available…start with this, and if you want to see more, google it to find a rental:

It is 90 minutes, and while I learned a lot of interesting information, the film could have been substantially shorter and still imparted the same amount of information.  So in case you don’t have a spare 90 minutes, I am going to hit some of the high points in today’s blog post.

In the documentary, two guys rent a one acre plot of land in Iowa from a farmer and then go through the process of planting it, tending it, and learning where it all ends up.   While I think most people are familiar with the “high-fructose corn syrup is the root of all evils story,” I’m guessing a lot of people don’t really understand how corn is grown and what it is used for (I didn’t, so I’m hoping I wasn’t the only one in the dark). 

I would guess that many people don’t know, but won’t be surprised to learn that the US government subsidizes the growing of corn.  The costs to produce an acre of corn exceed the money earned on selling the crop, so in essence, all of a farmer’s profits are a result of various government programs that provide incentives for farmer’s to grow corn.  I guess I really don’t have a problem with that ~ we need food, and if it is necessary to subsidize crops so that someone is willing to grow them, on the surface that seems reasonable.  However, the profits in growing corn have become so attractive that farmers are growing huge surpluses of corn.  Grain elevators are full and there are literally mountains of corn outside of the grain elevators with all of the surplus corn. 

The growing of corn has become more and more industrialized.  Farms have gotten bigger and bigger and the day of the small independent farmer are pretty much a thing of the past.  The farm of today is often planted in exclusively one crop, with the focus on obtaining as much yield per acre as possible.  To that end, it is estimated that as much as 91% of the corn seed planted in the US today is genetically modified (GM).  Seeds are modified to resist the herbicides that kill weeds…for example, a seed manufactured by Monsanto might be genetically modified to be resistant to the effects of Round-up, a Monsanto produced herbicide.  This allows the farmer to freely spray the entire corn crop with Round-up, which kills the weeds but not the corn.   I am planning a future post to discuss GM seeds in greater detail, but understand that these seeds are patented, which allows the manufacturers like Monsanto to limit scientists’ access to these seeds for testing purposes…which is part of the reason there are so many questions about the safety of such GM crops ~ not much testing has gone on.

With the bountiful supply of corn available, it makes sense that someone is going to figure out how to make use of it.  The government subsidies have been in place since the early 1970’s.  If you were born after this time, it is likely that you have never tasted grass-fed beef (unless you have specifically bought beef labeled as such).  With all the cheap corn available, cattle that used to graze on grass are now fed corn almost exclusively (90% of their diet).   Unfortunately for the cattle, they are not meant to eat corn.  After eating it for a period of time, many cows develop acidosis, which basically makes the sick cows.  To combat this, all cows are fed a steady diet of antibiotics mixed in with their feed to help prevent the development of illnesses (the close quarters of the cattle on these giant feedlots, along with the staggering amounts of waste generated ~ 100,000 cattle generate as much waste as a city of 1.7 million people ~ also contribute to illness).  Today livestock consume 70% of the antibiotics in the US (yes, you read that correctly).

In the feedlots cattle are fed continuously and are tightly confined ~ owners of the feedlots do not want the animals moving around burning calories.  Average time to reach slaughter weight on a feedlot is 15 months, versus several years for a freely roaming grass-fed cow.  As a result, the muscle tissue of todays corn-fed cattle does not look the same as that of a grass-fed steer.  The average fat content in today’s corn-fed T-bone steak is 7 times that of a same-size grass-fed steak.   SEVEN TIMES.  No wonder the government advises us to eat beef in moderation…it’s the corn-fed beef that is the problem, which is what we all buy in the standard supermarket.

Half of the corn grown in this country is used to feed animals (which, if you eat beef, poultry and pork from a conventional supermarket, means you are consuming the same GM corn that the livestock does).  Thirty-two percent is exported or turned into ethanol.  Much of the remainder finds its way into all of the processed food available in today’s supermarket…in fact, there is so much corn in our diet that when hair samples are analyzed, results show Americans as having more corn in their diet than Mexicans, who consider corn a staple of their diet.

My point with today’s blog is to make you aware ~ aware that corn is in meat and poultry, beverages, and many (maybe most) processed food products ~ and aware that most of the corn grown in this country is genetically modified.  I will leave you with a quote from the movie, from a corn farmer, Don Clikeman:

We aren’t growing quality, we’re growing crap.  The poorest quality crap the world has ever seen and we’re growing it today.

And that crap is in our food.

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About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college football...my teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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One Response to King Corn

  1. This interesting film illustrates what happens when food becomes more of a vehicle for making money than for feeding people. Most of the corn we grow in our ‘breadbasket’ is inedible for humans, and is used as feedgrain for cows (I wonder how much the cows like it as well).
    In addition to documenting their farming experiment, the filmmakers visited a massive cattle feedlot in Colorado. It brought to mind another movie that explores our meat industry Fast Food Nation. As the meat industry, like the cigarette industry, increases their global marketing, ever increasing amounts of grain are being used to feed cattle; along with creating fuels. Amazingly, some crops are being genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals Transgenic Plants: A Production System for Industrial and Pharmaceutical Proteins.
    With growing food crises around the world, one wonders when we’ll reach a tipping point and decide to create a food system that serves people instead of serving the interests of executives at Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland, the Supermarket to the World. Thinkers like Frances Moore Lappe have long argued that the real issue behind a lack of food security is not a lack of food, but rather a lack of democracy World Hunger: Twelve Myths. We need to dethrone ‘Kings’ of corn and many other commodities and put decision making power into the hands of civil society, as Vandana Shiva has advocated for so eloquently Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. See some of Shiva’s presentations on YouTube, she’s a modern-day Gandhi.

    A couple other resources to help us create a sustainable, organic, biodiverse, and localized food system:
    Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works (Our Sustainable Future)
    Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth
    Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair
    Mother Earth News
    How to Save the World

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