Corn: Food, or Commodity?

How corn came to dominate the world

Corn. Not a super exciting topic it may seem. You probably think that corn doesn’t play much of a part in your life. You may be surprised, however, to learn that corn is not only a fixture in your life, but a tremendous influence.

What do you eat or use every day that is made from (or of) corn? Once in a while we have corn on the cob, bake with corn syrup, or maybe eat some mixed vegetables with corn in it, but you don’t use corn everyday, right? Wrong.

Those little yellow kernels come from a plant called “zea mays”, the most important cereal crop on the planet. Corn is thought to have originated in Central Mexico, but has since made it’s way north, west, east and south. Corn production has sky-rocketed in the last 100 years. Corn is literally everywhere. Farmers now produce enough corn for 129 people, up from 16 people about 100 years ago. Unfortunately, much of this corn is not food grade (meaning you wouldn’t want to mow down on a cob of this stuff) but, much of it still makes it into the industrial food system through the proverbial back door.

Corn: Food, or Commodity?

Corn is in all the places you would expect – cornbread, corn flour, soup, but it’s also in beer, whiskey, soda, and probably any packaged or processed food you pick up off the store shelves or, especially, through a drive-thru window. My favorite example is the chicken nugget, made of modified corn starch (to keep the nugget together), corn flour (batter) and corn oil (for frying, of course). Add a pop to that, and you’re washing down your corn with corn*. Corn also feeds the animals that make our meat: the turkeys, cattle, fish, and chickens. Cheez whiz, salad dressings and even vitamins contain some derivative of corn, and it goes far beyond food items. Toothpaste, trash bags, cleaners and batteries…. the shine on your produce? Wax from corn. Coated cardboard? You guessed it, corn.

Corn has, as Michael Pollan refers to it, has a “dual identity”. No longer is it just used to feed people, it’s used in everything you can imagine. In fact, only a small amount of the corn grown is used in food we eat directly. The rest is for all the other stuff I listed above

The background of how this came to be is so extensive and convoluted, I won’t even attempt to explain it here. Long story short, the U.S. government has implemented laws and policies that have lead to a corn price so low, it costs the farmer more to produce it than it costs to purchase it. These low prices mean corn is the “perfect ingredient” for manufacturers of everything from cardboard boxes to cereal bars to use in their products. Low prices also mean a cheap food supply, made primarily of corn and lacking in nutritional value

How does the dominance of corn impact nutrition and the environment?

All this cheap corn means its more profitable (and more conducive to factory farming) to fatten cattle with corn rather than grass. In fact, 3 out of every 5 kernels of corn in the U.S. go to feed animals at factory farms, including factory farmed salmon. Before humans, corn never existed in the diets of salmon or cattle. Corn didn’t grow in the ocean, and cattle grazed on green pastures of grass. Changing the diet of these species does have an impact on the health of the animal, the quality of the meat we eat, and the environment (see my post on grass vs animal fed beef here). As I mentioned before, the types of foods you will find corn derivatives in, are nutritionally sparse, low cost, unhealthy foods.

It would seem at first glance that a world derived from corn may not be so bad. After all, isn’t corn a natural plant? Doesn’t that mean that using it in all these products would be a good thing? Not exactly. In the old days, corn and cows used to grow and be raised together. The corn would feed the cow, and the cow’s waste would fertilize the land for the corn.

You see, corn doesn’t naturally occur in such great quantities. And without the cows to fertilize the land (because the cows are now in CAFOs), in order to produce as much corn as we do, chemical pesticides and fertilizers are used in large amounts. This of course, leads to green house gasses and chemical run-off into our streams. The CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) that the corn feeds also contribute to toxic waste, pollution and disease.

In short, corn is delicious and wonderful in its natural form, the cob. We humans have stretched the limits of this simple crop to facilitate our thirst for endlessly cheaper food. Let’s not forget though, cheap food comes at a hidden cost, to our health and the environment.*This blog was inspired by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, specifically, chapter 2.