King Corn—The Subsidized Crop That Drives Our Fast-Food Nation
By Dr. Mercola
The United States is the number one per capita consumer of corn in the world. As expounded in books like The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, high-fructose corn syrup and other corn-derivatives work their way into nearly every kind of processed food on the market.
In the US, corn is one of the top four most heavily subsidized food crops, so farmers have every reason to plant plenty of it.
Unfortunately, since corn is a grain, it breaks down to sugar very rapidly and typically increases your insulin resistance if regularly consumed. Elevated insulin levels in turn are linked to most chronic degenerative diseases, including everything from obesity and diabetes to premature aging.
Making matters worse, the vast majority of American-grown corn is also genetically engineered (GE) to produce Bt toxin (a pesticide that kills bugs by making their stomachs explode), which is then consumed by you.
Studies now show that, contrary to industry assurances, this built-in Bt toxin survives the journey through your digestive system, and can make you allergic to a wide range of substances. This is in stark contrast to naturally produced Bt toxin which is rapidly broken down in the environment and never makes it to your stomach.
As Corn Became King, a Fast-Food Nation Was Born
The featured documentary, King Corn1, follows two college buddies, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, as they set out to learn more about corn—how it’s grown, and how it ends up in so many of our foods. As stated in the film’s synopsis:
“With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America's most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat—and how we farm.”
Far from providing us with critical nutrition, US agricultural policies contribute to the declining health of Americans and worsens the out-of-control obesity epidemic. Current farm subsidies bring you high-fructose corn syrup, fast food, junk food, corn-fed beef raised in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), monoculture, and a host of other contributors to our unhealthful contemporary diet.
And as stated in the film, were you to grow corn without these government assistance payments, you’d be virtually guaranteed to lose money. The farm subsidies are what’s keeping the wheel of this cheap food ingredient rolling. In short, as stated in a recent research paper2:
“Government-issued payments have skewed agricultural markets toward the overproduction of commodities that are the basic ingredients of processed, energy-dense foods.”
Do You Know How Much Corn You’re Eating Every Day?
A conservative estimate3 of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) consumption suggests Americans over the age of two consume an average of 132 calories a day from HFCS, with the top 20 percent of consumers ingesting an average of 316 calories from HFCS daily. This is bound to have significant health consequences.
For an excellent scientific analysis on fructose, I suggest reading the report titled: "Fructose, Weight Gain, and the Insulin Resistance Syndrome,4" published in one of my favorite nutritional journals, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It will open your eyes to some of the major problems associated with this sweetener. Other statistics included in the film include the following:
- Over the past 15 years, taxpayers have paid corn farmers more than $77 billion in subsidies; yes that is billion with a “b”
- More than 75 percent of farm subsidies are paid to a mere 10 percent of America’s farmers
- Since the late 1970s, the real price of fruits and vegetables have risen by 30 percent, while the price for soda has decreased by 34 percent
According to a 2011 report5 by the non-profit U.S. PIRG called “Apples to Twinkies,” each year, your tax dollars (in the form of agricultural subsidies) would allow you to buy 19 Twinkies, but less than a quarter of one red delicious apple!
So far, public health officials have had little to say about any of this, yet it seems quite clear that they should. The US farm subsidy program is completely upside down, subsidizing junk food in one federal office, while across the hall another department is funding an anti-obesity campaign. This hypocrisy shows just how broken and wasteful our regulatory system really is.
Worst of all, the farm bill creates a negative feedback loop that perpetuates the highly profitable standard American diet, so the US government is, in essence, subsidizing obesity and chronic disease. With the 2013 Farm Bill set to be finalized by the end of September 2013, this could be a key time to implement important policy changes in the near future.
Redesigning the System Could Help Fight Obesity and Protect the Environment
The time is ripe for change, and redesigning the system could help move us toward economic, and nutritional, recovery. If we're going to subsidize farmers, let's subsidize in a way that helps restore the health of American citizens and our land—programs that might just pay for themselves by the reduction in healthcare costs they bring about. Two years ago, Mark Brittman of the New York Times6 argued that subsidy money could easily be redirected toward helping smaller farmers to compete in the marketplace in a number of ways. For example, funds could be redirected toward:
- Funding research and innovation in sustainable agriculture
- Providing incentives to attract new farmers
- Saving farmland from development
- Assisting farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits and vegetables, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers (corn, soy, wheat, rice) to convert some of their operations to more desirable foods
- Leveling the playing field so that medium-sized farms can more favorably compete with agribusiness as suppliers for local supermarkets
FoodCorps—Turning Corn Fields Into School Gardens
King Corn co-creator Curt Ellis is also Co-Founder and Executive Director of the national nonprofit organization FoodCorps, which came up with the ingenious idea of turning acres of corn into school gardens:
“FoodCorps recruits leaders for a year of full-time public service in high-obesity, limited-resource public schools. Service members deliver food and nutrition education that teaches kids what healthy food is, build and tend school gardens that engage children and parents in growing fresh food in the schoolyard, and team up with farmers and chefs to get healthy, high-quality ingredients into school lunch.”
Since mid-August 2012, FoodCorps has started 411 garden projects in 10 states with the help of close to 3,300 community volunteers, and have harvested nearly 29,600 pounds of fresh produce for local schools. To learn more about the program, please see the FoodCorps website.7
Help Support Small Farms with a Farm Bill That Works
If you don't like the idea of your tax dollars lining the pockets of wealthy corporations that flood the market with sugary beverages and processed foods laden with HFCS, join forces with organizations that are actively working for positive change. Here are three different actions you can take:
- The Environmental Working Group has started a petition urging Congress to enact a Farm Bill that protects family farmers who help us protect the environment and public health. Take a moment to sign it now.
- Sign up with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to keep abreast of news and action alerts relating to the 2013 Farm Bill.
- Join Food Democracy Now, an organization co-founded by King Corn director Aaron Woolf.
Of course, you can also voice your opinion every day by voting with your wallet and supporting small family farms in your area. Even if it means buying just one or two items at your local farmers market, instead of the big box store, those little purchases add up.
Say no to junk food producers by not buying it, and return to a diet of real, whole foods—fresh organic produce, meats from animals raised sustainably on pasture, without cruelty, and raw organic milk and eggs. Eating this way will earn you a long, healthy life—whereas the typical American diet may set you on the path toward obesity and chronic disease.