Government subsidies to farmers started with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 which was one of the first Acts passed in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal package. Now, most of us with cursory knowledge of the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal know that he passed a ton of legislation; some of it worked out great, some of it failed, some of it wasn’t given a chance to work because it was shot down by the supreme court, and some of it kind of just fell between the cracks. In some form or another, the AAA fits in all of those categories. What’s fascinating to me is that we’re still learning the effects of these pieces of legislation 83 years later, and while things like the FDIC, the SEC, and Social Security have become staples of our government, some of the New Deal laws, like the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, and the subsequent Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, passed after the 1933 version was declared unconstitutional, have had almost unimaginable unintended consequences and have a huge impact the lives of every single person in this country.
First of all, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was developed in a time when the entire country was in economic plight. Essentially in the Great Depression, just about everything in the country that could have gone wrong did go wrong, and every problem contributed to the next. Specifically speaking in the agricultural world, farmers were producing like never before, producing huge yields of crops to sell at market. The problem with that was with the abundance of crops, they had to sell them for less than they were paying to grow them, a problem that FDR alluded to in this 1935 public address.
So to address this problem, part of the AAA was essentially subsidising farmers who planted crops other than “staple crops” like corn. Now how exactly does paying people not to plant corn turn into having too much corn? Well, essentially, it took decades and decades of good ole American government at its finest. In a hilarious reversal, congress basically flip-flopped the law between the 70s and the 90s to “wean farmers of traditional subsidies” which were the exact subsidies that the AAA introduced to in the first place so that farmers wouldn’t go broke if there was too much corn at the market one year. Of course this wasn’t an act that came out of nowhere, ever since the Nixon era the USDA had been pushing farmers to increase the amount of corn, and bills before those in the 90s had changed the AAA away from its original intent. So when I say the AAA had almost unimaginable and far reaching effects, what I really mean is that the laws and practices that govern our regulation of the agriculture, while they bare almost no resemblance to the provisions of the AAA, would like either not exist or would look significantly different if the AAA hadn’t introduced agricultural subsidies. Now, what exactly are these far reaching effects I’m talking about? Well for one…
Corn Subsidies Gave us Corporate Farming…… Kind Of
While it is difficult to prove that subsidies for corn and similar crops are solely or at all responsible for the rise in Corporate Farming, one thing we do know is that between 1946 and 2006 the amount of farms shrunk from 6 million to 2 million and by the same report, 3% of farms accounted for more than 44% of the output in 2006. Essentially, farms got bigger. A lot bigger. So clearly there’s been a increasing trend of corporate farming (which is a term I’m using to mean farms owned by corporations, large farms that supply corporations, and farms that run based on contracts from corporate buyers). And corporations only grow at that rate if they’ve found a way to do what they do incredibly successfully. Now, your average family farm of the Depression era may have needed these subsidies to survive down years and basically make a real living out of what was back then an incredibly unstable, but vitally important business. But you could see how the longer these subsidies are in place, the more technological advances in the farming industry happen, the more stable and reliable a business it becomes.
Maybe it happens by one farmer continuously doing incredibly well, so they look to expand and they buy out a couple of their neighbors. Or maybe a corporation sees that farming is kind of a no-lose industry because of the subsidies and buys some farmland. Anyway it happens, the more successful they are, the more farmland they buy, the bigger these corporations become. And like I said, it’s easy for these corporations to succeed when the subsidies that started as a much needed safety net have turned into programs like uncapped, government subsidized crop insurance which covered over $117 billion worth of crops in 2013 and which in down years, where crops like corn aren’t produced at as high of yields, the (corporate) farmers are paid market price for crops that didn’t grow. This crop insurance is subsidized at a rate of 62%, regardless of how many acres the farm is or how much money the farm makes on a year to year basis. And that doesn’t even take into account the money the federal government invests in the “private” insurance companies that sell crop insurance, ensuring that they make at least a 14% profit per year.
So let’s do some quick calculations here, let’s say you have a farm of 441 acres (which is the national average and includes the majority of farms which are small family farms, so it would be small by corporate standards). You buy crop insurance at its subsidized rate which averaged $25.63 per acre for 85% coverage (you want nice insurance). That amounts to a payment of $11,302.82 to cover your entire farm. Now let’s say you only plant one product in one season, minimizing your eventual sales. Let’s say you plant corn, because it’s a high yield crop. The average yield per acre for corn in 2013 (which is constantly improving) was 158.8 bushels of corn per acre. And let’s not forget all the costs associated with the growing process which for your farm if it were in Iowa, averages $336,712.32, though if it were it Illinois, averages $265,439, and nationwide, the cost of production averages about $304,201.80. But where the real bulk of the corn is grown is what the USDA calls the Northern Great Plains, which, since they don’t have a key to their regions, I can only assume contains Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Those 5 states alone hold 39.8 million of the 88.9 million acres of corn at an average cost of about $606.69 per acre, which for your farm means you’re spending about $267,550.29 So now you’re ready to sell your corn for about $4 per bushel.
But wait! We forgot about direct payments! So before we calculate profits we have to factor in the average $2,647 that a quite frankly self-aggrandizing USDA report says farmers received in Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) payments in 2015. However, we know that since the balance of farms (most being small farms, and a very few being incredibly large) skews averages like that, it’s best to go by acreage. In a much less self-aggrandizing 2015 report, the University of Illinois estimated that corn receives about $46 per acre in PLC and ARC payments (I mean, the corn itself doesn’t receive that… obviously). So if for your farm, that comes to $20,286, well beyond the average the USDA gave.
So now it’s time to tally it all up and see what kind of a profit you stand to make, if any. With all of that in consideration you’ll be taking home a profit of $32,858.91. Not incredibly impressive is it? After all of that, the average farmer takes home a salary just above the federal poverty level for a family of five? Well that almost makes it seem like these subsidies are still a necessary safety net and not a bloated government program. Unless… unless I’ve missed something, a key number in these calculations that makes a world of difference. Oh! I know! The acreage. We accounted for messy averages everywhere but in the acreage of the farm. So just what does the reality of corporate farming look like?
Well for starters, 51.5% of farms are under 49 acres. If that doesn’t skew an average, I don’t know what will. That’s like tracking the amount of snowfall on Pacific Coastline of North and South america. You’d come out with an average of like 1 foot of snow per every hundred miles and anyone who forgot about Alaska, Canada, and the southern parts of Chile would be like “whoa Panama gets a foot of snow on the coast??? I thought it was warm there???” So that’s how easy it is to skew these numbers, either for Farm Lobbies telling us most farms are small (true but misleading), or for studies reporting any kind of averages (I use the USDA a lot in this article but it’s always important to remember that they’re the ones administering these programs. And while I’m not saying none of their data is credible, because if it wasn’t I wouldn’t use it, it does mean we have to be careful to look at the source of what we’re getting).
So I’ll take you through the same thing we just did, except this time doing it with a corporate sized farm, and I’ll go through a bit faster this time don’t worry. So 2.2% of farms, all over 2000 acres a piece, hold 34.3% of cropland. The same study as well as an University of Illinois study I referenced earlier, show that costs per acre either go down or stay about the same as acreage goes up. So, using the same studies and numbers as before plus this USDA study which sites 391.6 million acres of total cropland, of which 34.3% is 134,318,800 acres. And 2.2% of the 1.675 million farms the study estimates comes to 36,850, meaning the average corporate farm is about 3,645 acres. Now you know the process from there, so I’ll just give you the answer: that farm stands to make $2,389,552.62 off of one harvest. Not only that, but even if they have a bad year and say only harvest 50% of what they normally do, their crop insurance will make it a really rough year for them, profiting only $2,031,119.73. And would you like to know how much of their profit is through direct payments from the government? (Because it’s substantially harder to see how much of their profits are government subsidized period). It’s about $167,670, to a farm that will already make over two million dollars regardless of yield. So essentially it’s a highly profitable business, for the large acreage farmers, which the government not only helps out at every stage, but then at the end just kind of says “oh and here’s some more money.” It’s sobering to see the difference between “average corn farm” and “corporate corn farm” isn’t it? One uses subsidies to stay afloat, the other uses subsidies to pad the already ridiculous amounts of money it’s making.
“So how does this relate back to corn?” you might be asking. “It seems like it’s just all about government subsidies,” you might be saying. How it relates to corn is two fold, (1) corn is now one of the subsidized crops, as we talked about, and (2) it is incredibly easy to grow in the United States, making this low risk game even lower risk for corporations. It’s historically been easy to genetically engineer, easy to get higher and higher yields from the same amount of land, and specifically now that corporations like Monsanto have control of a type of corn seed that contains insecticide in it, it presents even fewer risks to said corporations than ever before. As well as some potentially unsavory corporate intermingling, but we’re not here to talk about that today. So corn comes together with the perfect storm of characteristics for a business that corporations are already foaming at the mouth to get their hands into. Of course, one of the side effects of bigger and bigger farms all planting corn is that…
Corn is Dominating Farmland
So for some of the very same reasons I talked about above, corporations want to plant corn. They want to plant as much corn as possible because that’s how they’re going to make as much money as possible. But here’s the thing, as human beings, not only do our bodies thrive when we put a diverse selection of food in it, but we also tend to crave diversity in what we eat, not settling for the same bland dish every day in and day out. So, how do we get that diversity when 59% of our farmland is taken up producing corn and soybean and other subsidized commodity crops, not to mention how only 2% of that land is devoted to fruits and veggies (hmmmm…. could that be because they’re higher risk to corporations….?).
So we’ve stuck our whole head into the bear trap that is subsidizing a crop that’s already easy to grow to protect farmers that don’t really need protection anymore. And by the way, the majority of corn grown isn’t eaten by us in its original form, but we’ll get to that. But by doing this, not only have we created this monster of Agribusiness, by incentivizing Corn so heavily, we’ve effectively disincentivized crops like oh I don’t know pretty much everything from Apples to Plums to Broccoli to Eggplants. All of that stuff. Why would you farm any of that when you could farm corn? So now the price of all those nice, diverse veggies and fruits comes into the equation because with less people growing them, there’s less output, and when there’s less output, what we have costs more.
To give you a scale of how much corn is dominating the American landscape (and if you’ve driven through Nebraska or Iowa or Illinois you’d know), all told 88.6 million acres of corn were planted in the U.S. 2015. Which, out of the 1.891 billion acres in the contiguous United States, amounts for about roughly 4.7% of the total land area. Not impressed? That dwarfs that roughly 3.1 million acres of land area that we call Connecticut. It’s significantly bigger than the 35.532 million acres of land area that Illinois claims. In fact, if the 88.6 million acres of corn were all in one place and demanded statehood, it would instantly become the 5th biggest state in the US, only behind Alaska (365.2 million acres), Texas (167.19 million acres), California (99.699 million acres), Montana (93.15 million acres). If we go state by state, Iowa leads the nation with 13.7 million acres of corn planted, meaning that Iowa is roughly 38.6% corn.
So sure, that’s a lot of corn, and it’s definitely easy to see how it contributes to a lack of diversity in our agricultural system, but it can’t be that big of a deal can it? Yes, unfortunately, it can. Eviana Hartman of the Washington Post reported, in an interview with Michael Pollan, that since most corn is grown on lands that only grow corn without rotating the crops, it depletes the soil meaning that growers have to use more and more pesticide and fertilizer, also creating a weak layer of topsoil, leading to greater erosion. On top of that, Brooke Barton, the water program at the nonprofit organization Ceres, said in an interview with Boston’s NPR station that since corn requires more water than many of the areas that farm it get from rain, some corn growing States are seeing depletion of their groundwater aquifers. She then goes on to explain what scientists have dubbed “The Dead Zone,” which, although it sounds like the title of a bad movie, is an area of the Gulf of Mexico that is oxygen deprived and too toxic for aquatic life to grow. Barton’s study showed that 40% of the Nitrogen pollution in that area was due to fertilizer runoff from corn farming that carried all the way down the Mississippi.
Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning of the environmental costs of our excessive corn planting. In an interview with the Associated Press, Matt Rota, Director of Water Resources at the Gulf Restoration Network warns that if we don’t change how we produce corn, we could be in danger of “the ecosystem [changing or collapsing] as opposed to just being impacted.” Corn monocultures also seem responsible for contamination of rural drinking wells. The fertilizer that doesn’t runoff into the river soaks into the ground, leading to a reported 25% of rural drinking wells being contaminated by hazardous nitrate levels that could lead to gastric, bladder and oesophageal cancers in adults who consume it. Additionally, the same thing that is happening in the Dead Zone is happening in many US lakes which receive fertilizer runoff and can lead to the complete destruction of plant and animal life in certain lakes. This all adds up to not only a gigantic environmental impact but also further subsidization for the industry as it’s not these multi-million dollar companies that have to flip the bill for what was in 2005 estimated to be a $12 billion annual cost to the government through health care and environmental spending solely from the use of pesticides at the recommended level. Based on the effects of way it’s grown (monocultures with lots of pesticides and fertilizers), the places it’s grown in (increasingly where farmers need to compensate for the climate), and the sheer amount that’s grown, it can easily be said that the domination of corn in our farmland is hazardous to this country in multiple, profound ways.
We Make Things Out of Corn Not Because It’s Best, But Because It’s Cheapest
Most of us know about High Fructose Corn Syrup, a corn-made sugar that has been hotly debated with groups and studies standing up left and right to say that it’s going to be the death of us all or that it’s the exact same as sugar and please go on your way there’s nothing to see here. I’m not going to get into that debate at all but I will talk about High Fructose Corn Syrup later, and now. What people lose in the argument over the health factors of High Fructose Corn Syrup is the question of how it got to be so prevalent in the first place. Michael Pollan, author, journalist, activist, and Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, claims that the invention and introduction of High Fructose Corn Syrup came from the massive surplus of corn that was created both by the nature of the crop itself, and the government subsidies we talked about. Again, who cares if anyone’s going to buy it if you’re going to get paid either way?
And the stuff in your sodas and snack cakes isn’t the only thing being done with corn. The surplus of corn being produced in the country seems to have crept very efficiently into every part of your life from drywall to make up, from hand soap (in the form of PEG 120) to tires (touted as “green tires” which is heavily debatable), and from vegetables (the non-corn ones, though I suppose the corn ones too) to spark plugs!
Amazing, right? But what’s the point? The point is we were/are growing so much corn, that corporations making the corn had to hire scientists to figure out new ways to make money. Sure they could just leave the surplus in a silo somewhere since they get their money pretty much no strings attached, but why do that when there might be ways to make money off of stuff you weren’t going to make money off before?
So if you look at the economics of it, and since we’re all living in a (mostly) capitalist system here the US of A, that’s what it all boils down to right? These corporations, or agribusinesses, don’t operate by the same supply and demand principle that most companies are kind of bound to. Not only because of the nature of corn and farming, but because it’s profitable for them to make as much corn as they can regardless of demand. They don’t even have to account for demand in the first place. Not only that, but they get to create more demand (and more profit) by taking the amount of product that shouldn’t have been grown in the first place and finding more uses for it. And, as the cherry on top, they get to sell the items they create with that surplus at a lower cost than any competitor can afford because, hey, this is all just gravy for them right? Don’t worry, this isn’t the end of this discussion. We’ll come back to it in a little bit, but first we have to talk about…
Corn is Directly Related to the Price of Beef and the Abuse of Cows on Corporate Cattle Farms (and a Secret Third Item, Aren’t You Excited?)
Cows eat grass. I know: shocking. But there’s a lot of people and corporations (that last site is literally run by the meat industry) that have been recently peddling the idea that it’s a myth that cows are supposed to eat things like grass and hay, and cracking down on people that say otherwise. But the truth, or most of it, is that scientific studies support what the common knowledge is, that they’re grazing animals whose digestive system is setup to eat various types of grass, specifically preferring the nutrients in dry grasses. The rest of the truth, in the interest of being unbiased, is that it’s probably not going to harm the cows to have some corn in their diet. Say, like, less than 0.25% of their body weight.
So cows are supposed to eat grass! Big whoop! Why should you care if cows are supposed to eat grass and hay and maybe 0.25% of their body weight in corn? Well you should care because the vast majority of cows that you end up eating in your burgers and steaks and meatballs and meat sauce and some types of sausages are not being fed grass (as much). And they’re not being fed hay (as much). And they are certainly not being fed under 0.25% of their body weight in corn.
There are actually several reasons that this a very, very, very bad thing for all of us. First of all, is that it makes the cows sick. This is so commonly known, and has been known for so long, that this study just puts it out there as a fact of life that we have to deal with in the introduction. This article explains the illnesses commonly associated with Corn feeding in depth, but I’m going to list them out nice and quickly for you. Corn feeding frequently causes the following: tumors, abscesses (similar to huge pimples or cysts, growths that contain pus), liver damage, bloat (excess of gas that can lead to death by asphyxiation), and acidosis (pH levels drop, damaging the intestines and rumen and killing off necessary bacteria, making it much harder for cows to absorb nutrients). In 2002 digestive illnesses like bloat and acidosis were responsible for 25% to 33% of all cattle deaths and affected 1.9% of all cattle, with those numbers increasing based on the size of the feedlot. Those numbers alone have to be enough to make you think, “huh, maybe we’re not doing things right here…” even if you’re not an animal rights activist.
But that’s not the only way that corn affects the beef industry. We’ve been over this enough times that I trust you to know that the reason big cattle feedlots use corn is because it’s cheaper and the reason it’s cheaper is because it’s ridiculously profitable for big farms and corporate farms to grow, allowing them to blow away the competition. So what happens when the beef industry starts using corn to feed their cows? Not only does the price of beef go down because the cattle companies pay less for feed, but they’re actually able to make the cows bigger, fatter, and ready to slaughter much quicker (although part of that is also due to hormones and other practices).
And that might sound like a good thing. Cheaper, especially for those of us who don’t exactly have a whole lot of pocket cash, seems like a much better thing. Until you start to look into it. When beef prices go down, places like McDonald’s can sell you a burger for $1. When beef prices go down, it makes more sense to get a greasy, fatty, burger that tastes incredibly good and might be 85% cheaper than a salad you don’t want in the first place. That salad wasn’t subsidized. That salad probably came from some of the 2% of farmland in the US that grows fruits and veggies. And that’s just the easy take.
The really fascinating take is that beef has become less and less healthy over the past few decades, essentially since the rise in corn feeding. According to Bill Kiernan of Global AgInvestigating, the food supply of cattle has changed the meat the cattle produce, with significant health risks like a reduction of Omega-3 fatty acids found in beef which have all kinds of health benefits. It has also started producing more Omega-6 fatty acids, which, while they are essential to human health, promote inflammation, and so if consumed in mass quantities or without a balance of Omega-3 fatty acids, are linked to many health risks such as heart disease. Additionally, the amount of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) has drastically decreased in corn fed cattle, which, and here’s the kicker, is a type of fatty acid that actually helps you lose fat. So not only is beef cheaper, making us buy more of it, at the same time the price has been dropping, so have the health benefits!
You know how we think it’s ridiculous that back in the 50s they would tell you to have steak for breakfast, and there was all this red meat that was supposed to be good for you? That’s probably because back then it was good for you. It effectively had all the health benefits that scientists say about fish today, and more. And if you’re wondering, yes, they find the same thing when they compare grass fed beef to corn and grain fed beef. So sure, we could all go out and buy grass fed beef and get those same health benefits; well, I mean if we had $9.11 on average to spend for a pound of 90% lean grass fed ground beef patties as opposed to $5.89 on average for a pound of lean ground beef (and that’s a high estimate on the latter). Not to mention, most people aren’t buying their burgers from the store, they’re getting them from fast food joints, which is even cheaper. So not only is impractical (and classist) to think that everyone can “vote with their dollars,” it’s the same to think it’s purely a choice to eat healthy. But the main point: corn has actually single handedly ruined our beef. And that leads me to this:
Corn is Responsible for the High Obesity and Diabetes Rates in the United States
By now this shouldn’t be a huge shock to you. Every section of this article has been creeping steadily towards this conclusion. But I can’t just leave a statement like this one out there and say “it’s all backed up in what I wrote before this.” So let’s put the pieces together. First and foremost, let’s go back to high fructose corn syrup (I told you I would). I agree that it’s largely responsible for our obesity epidemic, but not in the way most people talk about it. The arguments you see are always “oh well it’s mechanically made so it can’t be as good for your body as nice, healthy, natural sugar, right?” First of all, that’s some pretty loose logic as “natural sugar” actually means nothing and cane and beet sugar both go through mechanical processes too. Second of all it really doesn’t matter if it’s better or worse than cane sugar. The important thing, just like this whole article has been coming back to at an almost annoying rate, is economics: High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is simply cheaper than sugar. That was more true when HFCS was first added to things like sodas in the 80s when cane sugar and beet sugar were becoming more expensive to produce, and it’s true now.
In this 1979 study about HFCS, the “new and important sweetener” cost an average of 71% of what other sugars cost in ‘75-’77 and in ‘78 the prices lowered to 53-62% of the costs of other sugars. So you can see how companies like Coca-cola and Pepsi might break out into their happy dances to buy up HFCS to sweeten their drinks instead of sugar. In fact you could see how most companies would swap out sugar for this corn based sweet stuff. Fast forward to a 2000 study by the USDA, and after about 20 years of dominating the sweetener market, the USDA found that HFCS producers were able to refine their product and process to an extent that they no longer needed to be competitive price wise with other types of sugar.That being said, despite the tight grip HFCS has on the sweetener market, it is still massively less expensive than any kind of sugar. In a 2011 study, the USDA reported that in 2000/2001 HFCS was the cheapest sweetener, 34.2% less expensive than cane sugar, and in 2009/2010 while, the prices were closer, HFCS was still 23.13% less expensive than cane sugar.
Now, the problem with this is that that price cut is (at least somewhat) passed onto the consumer. Of course, not in the traditional way of dropping the prices. No, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s strategized that instead of doing it that way, they could increase the price while increasing the size of soft drinks. That meant that while consumers were paying less per ounce, they were buying larger and larger amounts of soda. This is actually where the concept of “supersizing” comes from, the two companies that led the charge in HFCS use found that consumers would pay a few dimes more for an increase that only cost them 2 or 3 cents. You can see in this graph, that American intake of HFCS started to soar in the mid ‘70s, right around the time when Coca-Cola started using it. But the intake of other sweeteners didn’t fall as companies switched, they either grew or stayed the same, meaning by the mid 80’s, Americans were consuming a historic amount of sugar.
And it wasn’t just Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. In the United States, almost all foods that have any kind of caloric sweetener in them contain HFCS. That means that producers of those foods, be they breads or cereals, nutrition bars or yogurt, wheat thins or ice cream, could do the same thing soft drinks were doing: increase portions to get more profit, or cut prices to get more buyers. But all of that had nothing on the meteoric rise of soft-drink consumption, which in 2004 accounted for more of the average American’s caloric intake than any other food source.
What it all comes down to is that the cheapest, most affordable foods are those with the highest levels of High Fructose Corn Syrup. The more a company uses, the lower their costs are, the cheaper or larger their products are. The research backs it up. This study shows that countries using High Fructose Corn Syrup have about a 20% higher rate of diabetes than countries that don’t. And this article links HFCS to obesity, though, as I’ve been saying, not because it’s inherently worse for your body, but because it’s cheaper. Which is a classic case of “correlation does not inherently imply causation.” People think that just because they see HFCS in pretty much every unhealthy food out there, that HFCS must do something worse to your body than sugar does (and I’m not saying it definitively doesn’t, it might, but I’m saying that’s not the point). The real reason you’re seeing more HFCS in more unhealthy foods and drinks is exactly what I said: it’s cheaper to make it that way. If cane sugar were just as cheap as HFCS and the same exact things happened to get to the point we’re at today, except with cane sugar, chances are we’d be seeing the exact same thing; it’s economics, not biology.
The economic factors that lead High Fructose Corn Syrup to be manufactured and used in the first place also make a logical link to the higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes in poor communities. People with money can obviously afford to eat healthier if they choose, but people without much, if any, disposable income have to save every penny they can, and often eating healthier foods is just not a possibility. Add into this the devastating health effects of corn-fed beef that I talked about earlier, and how much cheaper it is to buy corn fed beef like you find in fast food burgers than it is to buy grass fed beef, and it doesn’t exactly take a suspension of disbelief or any leap of logic to believe that corn is at the heart of our obesity and diabetes epidemics, and on several fronts, has made us a less healthy country.
Certainly, corn is not the only factor in these trends, as there is almost never is one responsible party in large nationwide trends like the rise in obesity or diabetes. I would be remiss not to mention that at least some of it, and probably a fairly large portion, has to be a result of the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that Americans live. This comes from a changing economy that no longer relies on people to do physically active jobs, but encourages or requires people to do the majority of their work sitting down. It also comes from new technologies and technologies that are increasingly cheaper and more necessary: essentially everything from cable and satellite TV to cars to smart phones, computers, and tablets. This change in behavior, in activity, decreases the amount of calories we need, and started doing so right around the time when corn was increasing the amount of cheap calories available. So there are many trends and societal changes that can be pointed to that certainly contribute to the United States’ rising health problems. It’s clear to me, however, and I hope I’ve made it clear to you, that corn and the way it’s used in food today is at the very least one of these many factors, though based on the evidence, it seems to be a fairly large factor.
Hopefully this whole time you were reading you didn’t think I hold a vegetable responsible for systematically wrecking this country. That would be absurd. Corn (probably) isn’t responsible in it of itself for the rise in corporate farming, its domination of the farming landscape, the amount of products invented to make use of excess corn, the price of meat, the unethical treatment of cows, the health quality of their meat, or the price of unhealthy calories. Despite the distant possibility that corn has achieved sentience and has been subtly influencing us so it can slowly gain control of the country and then the world, I think it’s probably more likely that the two biggest parties responsible for all of this are made of little vegetable content: farming/refining corporations and lobbyists for the farm industry, and the government, specifically their Agricultural Subsidy programs which made all of this possible in the first place.
When Richard Nixon’s (surprise surprise) Secretary of Agriculture spearheaded the law that basically dismantled FDR’s New Deal legislation and tipped it on its head, he, knowingly or unknowingly, created the legislation that would lead to agribusinesses producing excess amounts of corn, instead of being paid not to produce corn. While the New Deal legislation had likely run its course by early ‘70’s, the way Earl Butz (Sec. of Agriculture) encouraged farmers to break those traditions, along with later Farm Acts like the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act, ironically referred to as the FAIR Act, directly resulted in the overproduction of corn and the overuse of corn based product at absurd profits for corn product manufacturers: the Archer Daniels Midland Company which refines and produces corn products from HFCS to Cattle Feed to Ethanol reported $599 million in net profits in their most recent quarterly report which was down from $1.128 billion in the same period last year; Tate and Lyle reported about $268.26 million for 2015 which was down from $379.04 million in 2014; while Imperion, a Fortune 500 corn refining company, reported $272 million in profits in the fourth quarter of 2014. Those numbers aren’t sales (income or revenue), or even yearly numbers (except in Tate & Lyle’s case): they’re cut and dry profits from a 3 month period of the year. Most of these companies, despite the “dwindling” profits, make over a billion dollars a year making items like HFCS, and that doesn’t even take into account the companies like Coke, Pepsi, McDonalds, Kelloggs, etc. who are able to make profits on top of profits by using these products.
So what’s the solution? Well, we can’t exactly go back to New Deal era legislation; like I said before, that system served a great purpose during the depression and WWII eras, but it’s a bit out of place now. I’m definitely not advocating that we take subsidies away from farmers, because look, the fact is this country needs food, and it’s a lot cheaper to grow it here than it is to import it, especially when we have a variety of different landscapes and climates that are perfect for a variety of crops. Also, if you take into account that products with high fructose corn syrup, and corn fed beef are how the poor in this country often are able to afford to eat, taking away the subsidies for corn without implementing an alternative could be disastrous. But in doing the research for this piece it seemed to me that a few things kept cropping up (excuse the pun) as problems that led to this predicament we’re in now: doing away with the acreage restriction that the New Deal legislation had, the decision to subsidise the very crops that were originally being suppressed, and the introduction of things like crop insurance and direct payments to farmers.
Now, no problem of this magnitude has just one simple solution. That’s how congress gets us into messes like this: by looking for a simple solution that “seemed great at the time.” So if we’re going to plow our way out of this (I’m not sorry for that one), we’re going to have to think about multiple arenas, multiple approaches to solutions for different problems, and we’re going to have to understand that farming and agriculture will probably never be like it was in the 50s again. Legislative solutions might be things along the lines of supporting (or subsidizing) small farms regardless of what they grow. My favorite part of that idea is putting back in an acreage limit to subsidies. We could find ways to maybe give tax breaks to farms that grow and sell “healthy” products; obviously that one would require some work to define what exactly “healthy” means. It’s going to be important to make it economical for farmers to grass feed their cows again. It’s possible that we may need to disincentivize the production of certain sweeteners (and I’m not just talking about taxing HFCS, I’m talking about potentially taxing all caloric sweeteners at multiple levels of production).
We could also find a way to do as a nation what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to do before the New York State Court of Appeals shot the idea down (while they did so mentioning a legislative body may have the right to do this): ban certain sizes of sugary drinks, either just in certain places or across the board. And finally we could stop the mandate of the use of ethanol in gasoline fuels. But as far as legislative changes go, I think it’s incredibly important to make sure we’re doing a few things with whatever route we go: supporting small farms over big ones (and yes “big farms” includes small farms that are owned by companies who own other farms), getting rid of any subsidy system that makes it economical to grow excess amounts of a crop year after year or results in one particular crop having absolutely no competition in pricing, and ensuring gradual changes so as not to shock the economy or the farming system.
Although with any potential legislative solution, it’s important to remember that even if it’s a good solution that might help us out of this problem, it faces huge obstacles to get through congress. The pro-corn lobbyists have made it a formidable thing to get a bill that actually decreases spending on corn and other staple crop subsidies through the US Congress. The sad reality is that corporate lobbyists are more responsible for many of the bills passed in Congress than voter interest or benefit to the constituents.
So that said, we need to look at other ways (while still not abandoning legislative paths) to fight this fight that really never should have gotten this bad. This is where most people will tell you to “vote with your dollar,” a phrase that’s been thrown around quite a bit ever since people started to realize our political system is somewhat, okay not somewhat, it’s really broken. It’s a smart idea: “we don’t have confidence that our actual votes are doing anything, so our only weapon against business practices that we think should be more regulated is to buy from the ones we agree with more.” Here’s my problem with this: short and sweet, it’s classist. It teaches that everybody has not only the ability, but the moral responsibility to buy products they can ethically agree with. That’s one of the fallacies behind this logic, because most people just don’t have that option.
We talked early about the cheap, corn based food being linked to lower socioeconomic classes. Most people aren’t getting a $1 cheeseburger at McDonalds, or a 2-liter of soda, or whatever it is because they think it’s the best option, it’s because for many people it’s the only option. Even for those in the middle class, saving money is important, and if you can save a couple bucks by getting two 2-liters for $2 bucks then you do it. And it’s not only price: prepared meals cut down on time and effort which, especially for working parents and people working multiple jobs, is as vital as saving money. So whether it’s a freezer meal or a fast food meal, it’s not only cheaper, it saves them time they just don’t have in the first place. Now, if you don’t have those limitations, then absolutely buy things you morally agree with. No harm can come from you doing that, and it’ll be really good for you especially with the health benefits of grass fed beef, though I honestly don’t expect it to change much either.
That’s a pretty grim picture, huh? Our congress is bought by the very people we’re trying to fight, and we can’t rely on how we spend our money to have a demonstrable effect on corporate practices. But we’re not helpless, right? We’re not stuck in this sticky, high-fructose situation forever because of forces we’re powerless to control, right? No, things aren’t hopeless. One branch of the government that hasn’t been completely corrupted by lobbyists is the Court system. In my research I can only find international law suits against the US for these subsidies, so I wonder what it would take to take a domestic law suit up the court chain. And remember when discussing Mayor Bloomberg’s loss in a New York Court of Appeals, the court only rejected his initiative because it didn’t come from a legislative body like the city council. So it’s not that courts (or at least that one) are against the idea of mandating size of beverage, it’s that the Big Apple went about it the wrong way.
Now that brings me to the second way to fight these laws and subsidies: from the bottom up, instead of from the top down. Trust me, trying to work on policy change gets easier the smaller you go. Even if you’re in an area that is traditionally against what you’re proposing. It doesn’t matter if you start with a college, a school district, a city, a county (or Borough in Alaska, or Parish in Louisiana), or a state, while it might not be easy, I guarantee you it’ll be easier than trying to get the Federal government to do anything about it. And it doesn’t matter if your first initiative is as simple as “grass fed beef one day of the month at school lunches” or as complex as “the state should implement a tax (not a sales tax) on High Fructose Corn Syrup Products, and use that money to directly subsidize healthier foods in stores,” even if you don’t succeed, it will make a difference. Even just talking with your friends about it and telling them things they might not know, writing about it, or doing other things to get the word out depending on what platform you have; all of those things can make a difference. If this is something you’re really passionate about changing, look up some local public service groups, or other groups that might have experience in this type of thing, and pitch them your idea. Voting with your dollar takes the collaboration of likely tens of millions of people at least and still there’s no way to know if it will affect anything. Working your local political system could take as little as one person: you.