As early autumn continues to push summer into its wake, I can’t help but think about corn. Fresh, juicy, and delicious sweet corn on the cob was a welcome treat growing up in the Northeast. It seemed like it was always most delectable right about the time the temperatures started to cool. Perhaps more fun than eating it was shucking it in the backyard.
We ate sweet corn on the cob about a dozen times or so throughout the summer and early fall. In the other months of the year, my mother might buy some canned or frozen corn. But it wasn’t that much. Growing up on Long Island, I didn’t often see corn fields. I recall passing a few scattered ones here and there along the highways on family vacations upstate or into New England. It wasn’t until I was out of college when I truly had my first experience with real corn fields. Over the years I’ve been mesmerized by the vast, seemingly endless stretches of them driving through states like Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. And of course there have been countless corn field drive-bys in Virginia since moving seven years ago to this great state, the cradle of our nation’s corn cultivation.
Somewhere in the back of my mind there always seemed to be this disconnect between the enormous amount of land in our country devoted to corn, and the limited amount of corn that I actually ate. I assumed this limited consumption was the case for other Americans too, at the very least because I never saw much corn on the cob in the grocery store, except during the summer and early fall, and even then it was small potatoes compared to well, the potatoes… and the lettuce, bananas, apples… and all the other more common fruits and vegetables. Despite this disconnect, I never paused to say, “what gives?” as I went blithely about my way consuming the Standard American Diet (otherwise known as SAD).
That pause finally occurred once I became deeply immersed in the culture of food through my work with Foodwaze. The answer to “what gives?” became crystal clear to me. All that corn growing out in all those fields across America is not winding up on my plate - or anyone’s plate - as corn on the cob, or even frozen or canned corn. What’s growing in those fields is appropriately enough called field corn, as distinguished from sweet corn. Field corn is the poster child for so much of what’s broken in our modern American food system. It’s partner in crime is the confined animal industry that produces most of the meat consumed in the this county. The two are closely connected.
Indeed, nearly ninety-nine percent of the corn grown in the United States is field corn. The remaining sliver is sweet corn. For the purpose of this post, unless otherwise noted, you can assume that from here on out any reference to “corn” is field corn. The majority of corn is used to feed livestock in confinement. Since the animals in confinement are not free to consume their natural diets, they must eat something. Corn and soybeans have become the cheapest and most effective solution to this problem. Unfortunately, solving this problem has led to catastrophe, which is what the confined animal industry is when considering its impact on the environment, animal welfare, and human health. Feeding animals all this corn creates unhealthy meat partly due to the imbalance in inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids. And because it allows meat to be produced so cheaply, it has led to the explosion in the amount of meat Americans consume. So not only are we eating unhealthy meat, often laced with antibiotics and hormones, we are eating more of it. Thanks in part to corn.
Corn is also used as an ingredient for thousands of non-food items such as shampoo, toothpaste, crayons, and paper. About forty percent of corn is used to produce ethanol, which is a whole problem on its own. But let’s quickly get back to food. Corn is used in an unbelievable assortment of processed foods on the shelves of grocery stores. In fact, just about every, non-organic packaged and boxed processed food contains corn. Our food system contains over 10,000 synthetic chemicals, and many of these are produced from corn, including high fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum, and maltodextrin. Even foods labeled “natural” can contain chemical ingredients made from corn, since the manufacturers are not required to divulge what’s in their “natural” ingredients. Vegetable oils, made in part with corn, have become one of the most pervasive and damaging foods in our modern diet, contributing to inflammation and over one hundred chronic and autoimmune diseases associated with it.
Corn is the most widely grown crop in the United States. Together with soybeans, corn takes up about half of the 300 million acres planted in the U.S. Most of this corn production is controlled by large agribusiness, with just a few small family farms struggling to compete (more on that in a moment). More than ninety percent of corn grown is this country is genetically modified. What this translates to is an excessive regiment of chemical pesticides. Indeed, corn is one crop where the pesticide - in this case Bt toxin - is bred right into the seeds. So any time you eat a processed food with corn in it, you are ingesting Bt toxin. Furthermore, as evidenced by the endless cornfields stretching across a huge swath of this county, it’s safe to say corn is grown using a monoculture system, which eliminates biodiversity and requires huge inputs in the form of synthetic fertilizers (more than 5 million tons of nitrogen a year) and irrigation (more than 5 cubic miles of water drawn per year from our rivers and aquifers).
This entire system is propped up by several billion dollars a year in government subsidies, also known as your taxpayer dollars. This money is funding the profit centers of large multinational agribusinesses. If you want to know what a farce this is, ask a local organic farmer how difficult it is just to get a small grant from the government to help improve their operations. Adding insult to injury are the finance traders making millions trading corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade, controlling and manipulating our food system in a way that yields few dividends to the health of our planet and its inhabitants.
So how did we get to this point? … to the point where the corn system has become such an abomination, creating deep-seated and costly problems for our society, our personal health, and our environment. Corn does, after all, hold a nostalgic place in our nation’s history. The corn plant does not exist naturally in the wild. The plant as we (somewhat) know it today has its roots back in central Mexico about 7,000 years ago. It was started from a wild grass called teosinte, which looked very different from our corn today. The kernels were very small and widely spaced. This crop eventually became known as maize to Indians throughout North and South America, who depended on it for much of their food.
English settlers were quickly introduced to it when they landed at Jamestown and Plymouth. It would have been on the table at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621, but it was in Virginia where its cultivation began to flourish among the settlers. From there it spread West and became entrenched in the agricultural landscape of our nation.
Flash forward to 1933, when the Farm Bill was born. It was originally intended as a temporary emergency measure, part of the Deal Deal to help struggling farmers during the Depression. It was anything but temporary, still around today - in fact it’s re-legislated about every 5 years - and has morphed into a shameful subsidy program for Big Agriculture.
Not only has the U.S. corn industry spread its destructive tentacles throughout our own country, but far and wide beyond our borders. By many accounts, the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s decimated the small farms in Mexico (where corn was born), by flooding the country with cheap, subsidized U.S. corn. Throughout other countries in the developing world, multinational food corporations are transforming local agriculture by encouraging farmers to abandon subsistence crops in favor of cash commodities like sugar cane, soybeans, and of course corn. These are the building blocks for the processed foods that are being pushed on poor, rural communities as a savior to their hunger problem. But the problem remains, and now many of these people are not only hungry and poor, they are also suffering from the obesity and chronic disease that plagues the U.S.
Suffice to say, as with all food related issues, the topic of corn is complicated, and each of the subtopics I have discussed is deserving of much more in-depth treatment than I can give in this space. I’m always self-conscious about taking a position that can seem haughty and self-righteous. It's easy to say we need to stop eating food that has anything to do with a de-humanized industrial food system… in this particular case, the corn system. On the one hand, doing that very thing as consumers is vital to galvanizing change. But on the other hand, we need to remember that here are humans enmeshed in the system. Indeed, there are many small family farms all over this country growing field corn with the best of intentions, often under the shackles of Big Food corporations and their government cronies that have small family farms by the kernals. The term “family farm” is often misappropriated, as is so much food lingo. I’m talking about farms where a family actually lives on the land, and works it with their own hands, often without hired help. Indeed, these types of farms are dwindling in number as they struggle to compete, and in their own way they are essential to the fabric of our nation.
I contemplated farmers like this recently, with heartfelt compassion, as I drove through endless corn and soybean fields in Ohio (the nation’s largest producer of corn way back in the mid-1800s, a spot now dominated by Iowa). Most of the fields I passed stretched far to the horizon and along the road were little signs advertising GMO seeds, with names like Strike Genetics, AgriGold, and Beck’s. It was pretty obvious that those were the seeds planted in the respective fields. What was a little less obvious was whether many of these were indeed family farms. To be sure, many of them had homes on them, that looked about as normal as any home you’d see in East Coast suburbia. I noticed that many of them also had small vegetable gardens along the side… and often with some sweet corn growing!
Driving through an area like this is a reality check against any hope of our modern industrial food system radically transforming any time soon. It’s easy to rail agains the system, unless and until you look deep into its core. But hope is tenacious. It’s what makes me constantly ask myself “what if?” which I guess in effect has replaced my erstwhile “what gives?” question. So, what if?… these endless fields of corn could be different. What if these farmers could be encouraged… convinced… incentivized to produce a wide variety of foods, without chemicals… food that could better nourish the land and feed people more resiliently, not through some far off industrial system, but right in their own communities?
Michael Reilly is co-founder of Foodwaze, LLC, a social enterprise based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The mission of Foodwaze is to help consumers find the best sources of real regenerative food at restaurants, cafes, markets, farms, and more. Foodwaze produces an online and mobile food guide that curates and rates businesses based on their commitment to a local regenerative food system.