Is Corn Killing Us?

I don’t mean to be repetitive, but I’ve been reading the blog of  Chris Prillo Lockergnome Extraordinaire today and have found quite a bit of inspiration there. I even posted on essay to another blog so I wouldn’t over do it here.

His post, Corn Kills More People Than Terrorists Do, points out that terrorism has killed a very small number of people this year compared to the number who die of obesity. Of course his readers made all kinds of excuses for why this fact is irrelevant or misleading. This graphic was included:Corn Terrorism Graphic

Complaints were lodged that we can’t prove corn causes obesity, obesity is a choice–terrorism isn’t, people die from old age so why don’t we work to outlaw getting old.

I restrained myself from posting a comment this time. But I knew I had to discuss it.

As one person pointed out, corn isn’t really the culprit–it’s high-fructose corn syrup (HFC) that gets ingested by so many people. And that happens because HFC is so cheap. Sugar from cane and beets costs more to grow and process.

I don’t want to argue that corn is more dangerous than a terrorist. I do agree that a person has a much greater likelihood of suffering from ingesting it than being the victim of a terrorist. Just like one has a greater chance of dying in a car accident than dying from an airplane crash. But the airplane crash scares us much more than a car crash because it is out of our control and so many more people suffer at one time.

My concern is the HFC. We don’t need to ban it as some would encourage, but we can make it more equitable. Corn is one of the most subsidized crops in this country. Large corporate farms plant acres and acres of corn that government money subsidizes from direct grants to plant it to guarantees of the price paid at harvest.

These subsidies cause many problems beyond creating cheap HFC. Our farming culture has created mono-cultures of plants that become subject to disease and insects because of the lack of diversity in the landscape to provide natural pesticides and barriers to transmission of these problems. In much the same way that interbreeding animals causes weaknesses in their genetic make up by replicating problems  alongside the desirable traits they want.

Then the seed companies work to create genetically modified organisms (GMO) in laboratories to combat the disease and pests they cultivated in their mono-cultures of subsidized crops. And no one knows what problems these GMOs will bring in the future. What will happen if they interbreed with native species? What will happen if they evolve and mutate once as they are breed and rebreed together? What will happen if pests develop that they are no longer resistant to? And how long will these things take?

So I suggest that we rethink our farm subsidies and develop new ways to grow our food–or maybe it’s a return to the old, old ways. Diversity of plants on the land, low tillage, and local consumption. And a first step is to de-subsidize corn that is destined to become HFC! If corporations want to make HFC and use it in foodstuffs, they should be able to, but they should have to grow and purchase it through a real free market–no more socialism for corporate farmers.

I think the same should apply to livestock confinement as well as mono-cultured plants, but I’ll leave the big argument for another post.

The other arguments posted to the comments are that obesity is a choice and we cannot prove a link between obesity and HFC.

While I do not know of any scientifically rigorous study that found a link between the two, the empirical evidence listed in the graphic makes a pretty good case for it. A 125x increase in the consumption of HFC between 1970 and 2000 and the dramatic increase in obesity during the same period can’t be just coincidental. That doesn’t mean it’s the sole cause, but it must be a contributor.

Corn makes fat cows and pigs fast. And fortunately for the fat cows and pigs, they are killed before the obesity can kill them. And then we consume their fattier meat and wash it down with HFC-laden soft drinks. I know that just because 2 things happen at the same time doesn’t mean they are linked, but cheap and abundant sweeteners and weight gain just have too much in common not to have a link.

Then I want to take issue with obesity as a choice. I don’t know many people who really choose to be obese. Many may prefer to be a little overweight rather than eat a tasteless diet that leaves them hungry all the time or spend hours slaving in a gym, but obesity is not a choice anyone I know would consciously  make.

I don’t know how some people become as large as they do. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how I grew to be as large as I am. But there it is. Some of us end up carrying around hundreds of pounds that we don’t remember putting an order in for. I count the calories that I consume and can’t see how that’s the cause. Also, I don’t eat when I’m bored or because I’m sad or because it’s in front of me. I eat when my stomach starts to hurt after hours of not eating anything. My mom complains about my size in one breath and in the next she’s trying to get me to eat more because she doesn’t know how the small amount of food I ate could fill me up.

And I could spend hours in the gym, but I have more things to do with my life than that. If I spent enough time working out to really lose weight, I’d never get anything else done so that cannot be the answer. I try to move as much as possible, but hours in the gym isn’t my ideal life.

And for many food is an addiction. Much like any other and they will need assistance to combat it. And people who do not succumb to addictions don’t understand the hold they can have over a person so they label the behavior a choice when it is actually a mental health issue as well as a physical health issue.

And I still say cutting the HFC will make us all healthier and we can begin the process by stopping the subsidies. And we can all make a personal choice to avoid eating/drinking it by reading our food labels until then.

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  1. The changes in the family farm are really economic. At what stage do you say, “I can make more money in town” and walk away. Those of us still left on the farm, do it for the love of the land. Even the larger farmers are there because they love it, not because they can make a lot of money.
    It looks as though I’ll be the last generation on the farm for my family. My cousins have all gone to the city and my children have now followed them. It takes a lot of money to farm on a commercial scale and it cannot be done without extended families and employees.
    I recently read some interesting information out of College Station Texas about beef, HDL and LDL. I think you’ll find it interesting. http://agnews.tamu.edu/showstory.php?id=1934

    • Michael–I agree that people who farm usually love the land, but my family is out of the farm business because they watched their parents physically struggle with it in addition to financially–and they all had full-time jobs elsewhere too. Now they all live in the “country” but none own farms! Most of them you couldn’t pay to live in the city, but they don’t want the headaches of farming. Farmers who buy neighbors land to make bigger farms I would call LARGE family farmers. They are still a small to medium sized business, not a large corporation (even if incorporated). 80 acres and a mule just won’t cut it any more, but 800 acres and a John Deere might.

      But big companies that invest in agriculture do so because they know it produces commodities that will always be in demand. We are eating more than ever and industries are working to develop products from plant materials at an ever increasing rate (from fuel to cosmetics). And even though it’s not easy to be super profitable, they still try to succeed at it. And I’ve spent years boycotting everything from lettuce to mushrooms in support of migrant farm workers who are treated little better than cattle. And I’ve protested animal containment practices from puppy mills to hogs because a large number treat the animals inhumanely and also end up polluting the environment. Iowa used to have so much pollution in the rivers and ground water, that is was on the verge of being named a disaster area a few years ago. The state has since begun to clean things up, but the problem only developed after containment farms became common.

      I applaud you for staying on the farm. I wish families could support themselves and produce bountiful harvests, but our society has turned the economics upside down when it comes to compensating people for their work. We say children are our greatest resources, but we can’t pay day care workers a living wage and teacher salaries are not that much better. We want high quality food because it’s healthy and beneficial, but we treat the people who harvest and process it as if they were disposable, and the animals as if they are not living creatures.

      I think we probably need some large corporations, but the problems they cause just make me wonder how things all got to be so wrong. John Deere developed his revolutionary plow here in the Quad Cities (Moline, IL) that made it easy to break through the prairie grasses, but that ended up leading to the dust bowl of the 30s and the monoculture crops that suffer from diseases and super insects that are pesticide resistant–and to the use of stronger and stronger pesticides because the pest get stronger and stronger with them. Deere is one of the largest employers here and it has weathered the change in agriculture of the last few decades better than others, but they aren’t blameless or immune.

      And that article was interesting–unfortunately, I can only give it the same amount of credence that the pharmaceutical companies have when they published favorable studies of drugs like cele’brex which have been proved less than safe after they were used regularly for years. Or the tobacco companies studies that say tobacco isn’t addictive. Or even the California Happy Cow commercials. I’m not saying the info is false like those others, but I’m saying I can’t determine if it is or not and the source is suspect because it benefits from the results.

      Thanks for stopping by an being open to discussion with me!

  2. I haven’t kept up with the amount of money that actually makes it to family farmers lately. I applaud you for working to make a go of it.

    And I agree. Many factors have made obesity an epidemic. But the fast food restaurants would not push us to buy cheap soft drinks if not for the availability of HFC. Every soft drink sold through a fountain system is almost pure profit–except for the cup!

    Our society is as much to blame as any class of business. We want fast cars, fast food, instant money, and instant coffee. In addition to glorifying profits above all else.

    We have devalued people and relationships with each other and the earth so that making money is the one and only goal that is valued by our society.

  3. Question? What is corporate farming?
    I see hundreds of thousands of farm families struggling to make a living in this world. 97% of all farms are family owned. Instead of corporate farming I think we should look at what industry does to the food stuffs produced after they leave the farm or ranch.
    It is not the farms that produce the corn flakes and candy bars people eat. Nor are they responsible for the fries cooked in fat and covered with salt. There is nothing wrong with the fresh fruits, veggies, milk and meats that come from the farm. They are good nutritious products of earths bounty. The problems start after they leave the farm, and in our choice of what we decide to put in our bodies.

    • I totally agree with you. But the large corporations that own millions of acres and also buy the bulk of what is produced by the family farms and therefore control the prices paid get subsidies for all facets of their production from field to store shelf.

      I grew up on a farm and I still have relatives who are trying to keep at it. But it’s harder and harder. Even locally, a couple of families dominate the production just because they are able to buy or lease the majority of the acreage and plant and harvest it in bulk for the economy of scale necessary to keep costs down. And the small farmers who are still working their own land have full-time jobs in addition to that and they have to hire people to harvest for them because they cannot afford to own their own equipment any more.

      My Grandparents and my Uncles all had every piece of equipment they needed from hand tools to combines when I was a child. By the 1980s that was an impossibility. And the reliance on monoculture crops like corn and soybeans depletes the environment and makes the crops more vulnerable which costs more to protect.

      But our choice to what as to what we put in our bodies is too often controlled by how much we have to pay for the food. Some one who’s trying to make their food dollars go as far as possible don’t always have the luxury of bypassing food made with cheap sweeteners and other processed ingredients.

  4. The corn subsidies that so many complain about are long gone. There is no need to subsidize corn production when the price of corn has been raised to economic levels. Yes, farmers still get paid by the government in programs like ACRE, but it is a very small amount. In my case it is less than 1% of gross income per acre. Not enough to encourage anything. We’ve had a much bigger boost from the ethanol industry.
    No one has found a link to HFCS and obesity. I find a lot of factors that evolved at the same time as more likely sources of obesity.
    One is the increase in the number of fast food restaurants since the 70’s. The promotion of soda and fries in these food stops has changed the diet of many across the world. Fries are not veggies, but another source of starch which is converted into simple sugars in the body.
    A second change is our reliance on machinery to do our work. When every lawn was mowed with a push mower, every trip in an auto carefully considered, when bicycles were more common modes of transport and people had to work to do any job, it was harder to get fat. The only fat people were the rich. They had no need to work physically. Now everyone has a machine to help them do everything and we rarely walk to the corner store, because the mall has a better deal.
    Our bodies are not made to sit around and watch TV. They evolved in a world of constant activity, a struggle to stay fed. When food of all types is as near as the bowl on the coffee table and as diverse as what is found in todays grocery and C-store we have no need to struggle for food. Now that so few know how to butcher a hog, or even grow their own fruits and veggies, is it any wonder we take the easy way and eat ourselves to death.

  1. May 11th, 2011
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