Overabundance of corn and its effect on the economy


As you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, consider for a moment the side dishes. One of the items that may be there can do more than provide nourishment. It can also affect public health, the economy, even national politics. Corn is the subject of this report from DAY TO DAY’s Mike Pesca that we’re calling Kernel Knowledge: The Stalking of America.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

The story of the first Thanksgiving, depending on what version you’re told, goes something like this: Hungry Pilgrims dine with friendly Wampanoag Indians who not only bring snacks but provide long-term assistance by teaching the Pilgrims how to grow corn. Little could our buckle-shoed forefathers imagine that this miracle crop would one day be produced in such abundance that, almost 400 years later, some food experts see corn not as a salvation but as a threat.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (The New York Times Magazine): Our entire diet has been colonized by this one plant.

PESCA: Michael Pollan is an author and writer for The New York Times Magazine, where he’s written that the overabundance of corn is hurting America. He says corn shows up where you’d least expect it.

Mr. POLLAN: We have this illusion of diversity when we go into the supermarket or a restaurant. We think, ‘Oh, look at all these different ingredients.’ If you look at the, you know, prototypical McDonald’s meal, that’s corn. Corn sweetener is the main ingredient in the soda, and that meat or those chicken nuggets, say, are all corn. I mean, the corn that was fed to the animals and, in the case of the nuggets, the corn that makes the binders that hold the thing together, the oil that it’s fried in, the material that it’s coated in — all corn.

PESCA: To use another of Pollan’s examples, the fact that 7-Eleven still turns a profit selling 64 ounces of cola for 69 cents is a direct result of the extremely cheap and plentiful supply of high-fructose corn syrup. Pollan believes one reason for the obesity epidemic is that it costs almost nothing to make any food as sweet as people can stand. Then there’s the food that’s not supposed to be sweet, but succulent: beef. ‘It’s what’s for dinner.’ But corn is what’s for dinner for the beef. Cows eat about a third of the over half-a-trillion pounds of corn produced in this country annually. Unlike us, cows don’t actually want to eat corn. In fact, corn is so foreign to their natural diets, they have to be fed antibiotics, usually from the time they start to eat corn until the time they’re slaughtered. Giving all these cows antibiotics mean that the drugs people get may be less effective, according to Michael Pollan.

Mr. POLLAN: Once-useful antibiotics are losing their power because we’ve squandered them, essentially, on animal agriculture. From an ecological point of view or biological point of view, it’s absolute insanity. From an economic point of view, it’s perfectly rational. Here’s the cheap source of calories. We’ve got too many of them. Let’s feed it to the cows.

PESCA: Pollan thinks many of our corn-borne maladies are supply driven. The government subsidizes corn so heavily and we produce so much of it that we’ve got to find ways to use it, even ways that don’t include eating it, like putting it in our gas tanks. Enter ethanol, which has been hailed as an environmentally friendly fuel.

Mr. MONTE SHAW (Renewable Fuels Association): I mean, ethanol is a form of solar energy. We get the freebie of the sun.

PESCA: Monte Shaw is the communications director for the Renewable Fuels Association, which is funded by ethanol producers.

Mr. SHAW: And it also reduces emissions from the tail pipes: smog-forming emissions, carbon monoxide emissions, greenhouse gas emissions.

PESCA: But many environmentalists oppose ethanol. Dan Becker, the Sierra Club’s director of global warming and energy, says that while mixing ethanol into gasoline reduces carbon monoxide, it increases smog.

Mr. DAN BECKER (Sierra Club): Ethanol helps make smog worse, and it doesn’t significantly improve America’s energy security.

PESCA: Becker also cites a statistic which shows that for all the energy that ethanol might save, you still have to burn a lot of fossil fuel to harvest the corn, to run the ethanol factory and to transport the fuel. A major study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change has indicated that ethanol technology has improved. Pew says that creating ethanol used to require the use of so much fossil fuel that the whole process was an environmental wash. But with improved technology, the process now does wind up saving more fuel than it burns. But that savings comes at a huge cost to the taxpayers, according to the Cato Institute’s director of Natural Resources Studies, Jerry Taylor.

Mr. JERRY TAYLOR (Director, Natural Resources Studies, Cato Institute): The real reason we have an ethanol program is to promise farmers who are at death’s door that the federal government can save their industry and increase crop prices and keep them in business.

PESCA: As a scholar for the free-market Cato Institute, Taylor spends a lot of his time convincing conservatives to actually be conservative on fiscal issues. And nowhere does he see the subsidy temptation strike like it strikes with corn. Taylor notes that major politicians have been husked alive when opposing ethanol subsidies.

Mr. TAYLOR: Particularly since the presidential primaries go through Iowa, a presidential candidate can very easily be crippled by opposing the ethanol program. We saw that with John McCain in 2000. He didn’t even bother competing for Republican votes in Iowa. Because he opposed the ethanol program, he knew that was certain death in Iowa. Had it been otherwise, he might be president today.

PESCA: Taylor opposed the latest energy bill, which went down to filibuster tactics. But that bill nearly passed because it peeled off enough Democratic support from corn-producing states. Typical corn politics, according to Michael Pollan, who says that corn senators, who usually come from sparsely populated states, are cheaper by the bushel.

Mr. POLLAN: You can buy a farm-state senator, you know, for a fraction of the cost of buying a senator in a state like New York or California. You know, TV time is cheap, so relatively small campaign contributions can buy you the goodwill of a farm-state senator for bargain-basement prices.

PESCA: Often the partisanship in Washington isn’t Republican vs. Democrat; it’s states which are corn rich vs. states which are corn poor. People always talk about big oil or big tobacco, but big corn plays a big role in the shape of national policy. All of this is enough to make Michael Pollan come to a pretty dire conclusion.

Mr. POLLAN: We’re probably doing more for corn than corn is doing for us. It has gotten the upper hand in this relationship, and we need to bring it back under control.

PESCA: Which, unlike struggles with other living things like kudzu and a boll weevil, is simply a matter of will. It does seem that a civilization which has mastered and embraced a versatile crop should be able to benefit from that knowledge, not be undone by it. Then again, maybe if the Wampanoag Indians were around today, that’s exactly what they’d say. For DAY TO DAY, I’m Mike Pesca.