Last night my wife and I watched the documentary King Corn, which I highly recommend because it serves up one of my favorite combo meals: information and humor.
I heard about King Corn when Nora Gedgaudas interviewed Curt Ellis, one of the film’s creators. Ellis and his co-creator Ian Cheney decided to learn about the dominance of corn in our food supply by growing an acre of corn in Iowa, then following where corn goes after it’s harvested. The short answer is: it goes into pretty much everything.
People like to blame the big, bad food industry for turning us into a nation of corn-eaters, but it was clear to me (and yes, this fits nicely with my own bias) that the problem is rooted in stupid government policy. Before Ellis and Cheney even till the ground, the farmer whose land they’re renting tells them, “Without the government payments, you wouldn’t make any money growing corn.”
Duh! As they explain in the film, farmers in Iowa used to grow a variety of crops. Now most of them grow corn, period. Why strictly corn? Because they get subsidies for it. Take away the subsidies, and corn would be far less plentiful, or much more expensive, or both. As any economist will tell you, you get less of what you tax and more of what you subsidize.
Mountains of cheap, government-subsidized corn are the reason corn syrup replaced sugar as a sweetener, and also the reason most cattle are raised on corn. Why should a cattle rancher buy enough land to let the cattle graze when it’s cheaper to have a few tons of corn shipped in? As Dr. Al Sears told me during our interview, grains are literally cheaper than dirt – he compared the per-pound price.
So your tax dollars are making nutritionally inferior food cheaper to produce. Those of us who don’t drink sodas are helping to buy them for people who do. Those of us who would prefer to eat grass-fed beef are helping to make corn-fed beef cheaper, which pretty much guarantees it will dominate the market.
Doesn’t that just make you proud of your politicians?
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