By John Lawrence / San Diego Free Press
Corn is the staple of the US agricultural system and food supply. It’s in everything we eat unbeknownst to many Americans.
Corn feeds steers that become steak and fast food hamburgers. Corn feeds chickens and pigs – even catfish, salmon and tilapia. Milk, cheese and yogurt that once came from cows that grazed on grass now come from Holsteins that spend their time tethered to milking machines while munching on corn.
Processed foods contain even more corn than so-called “natural” foods. Take chicken nuggets, for example. Not only the chicken itself but the corn starch that holds it together, the corn flour in the batter, the corn oil in which its fried, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di- and triglycerides, the golden coloring, the citric acid that keeps it fresh – all these ingredients come from corn.
Any soft drink in the supermarket including Coke and Pepsi contains High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) so you can wash down your corn with some more corn. A quarter of the 45,000 items in the average supermarket contain corn. Corn’s derivatives are used in all processed foods, derivatives such as corn oil, corn starch, maltodextrin, xanthan gum, ascorbic acid, ethel acetate, acetic acid and vanilla extract. When broken down, derivatives of corn get used as a food filler, texturizer, emulsifier, sweetener, preservative, adhesive and many other applications.
Government agricultural policies makes corn so cheap that food manufacturers earmark large budgets for research and development to invent infinite ways to push corn into more products. And corn is not only used as a food. It is used in gasoline production (ethanol), construction materials, adhesives, paper products, disposable diapers, trash bags, batteries and charcoal briquettes as well.
Why is corn so ubiquitous in the American diet? The main reason is that it’s super cheap and this is mainly a result of government policy. For hundreds of miles in the midwest corn is the only crop grown. Farm after farm are devoted to this monoculture. America produces 300 million tons of number 2 corn each year. This isn’t the kind of corn you eat when you eat corn on the cob. This is the kind that is primarily fed to beef cows, chickens and pigs.
It wasn’t always so. Farms used to plant several crops and were home to multiple animals. No longer. Why this change from polyculture to monoculture? Credit Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill, the two mega corporations of US agribusiness. US government agricultural policies, lobbied for by these giant agricultural corporations, have resulted in corn being the cheapest agricultural commodity out there. Government subsidies, provided thanks to the taxpayers, push the price of corn way below the level that would have been set by the law of supply and demand.
Way back in the 1930s farmers were paid not to grow corn when supply exceeded demand thereby keeping supply and demand in balance and the price paid for a bushel of corn up. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was a United States federal law of the New Deal era which reduced agricultural production by paying farmers subsidies not to plant on part of their land. Its purpose was to reduce crop surplus and, therefore, effectively raise the value of crops. But during the Nixon administration farm policies were rejiggered to increase production and drive down prices.
The 1973 farm bill began replacing the New Deal policy of supporting prices through loans, government purchases and land idling with a system of direct payments to farmers. Farmers were encouraged to sell as much production as they could at any price, no matter how low, because the government (taxpayers) would make up the difference.
Corn production skyrocketed much to the approval of large agribusiness corporations like ADM, Cargill and Monsanto which engineered GMO seeds that could be sprayed with their Roundup herbicide. But lower profit margins forced the smaller farmers into bankruptcy. Farmers were forced to maximize the number of bushels their farms could produce per acre. The only way to do this was to use GMO corn (bought from Monsanto), huge tractors and combines and huge quantities of pesticides (also bought from Monsanto).
It became economically expedient to concentrate animals in large feeding pens where they were fed a diet of corn. Corn is fed to beef cows although they evolved to eat grass. Feeding them corn actually makes them sick, and, in order to prevent this, they are fed a dose of hormones and antibiotics with their daily allotment of corn. Corn subsidies have been largey responsible for this change.
Author Michael Pollan’s recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, suggests that corn subsidies in particular have led to the success of the feedlots or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that he and journalist Eric Schlosser have blamed for the emergence of e. coli as a major health concern. Subsidized corn is so inexpensive that beef companies find it profitable to build large facilities to feed corn to their cattle. Cows do not normally live in enclosed areas or consume corn, so these CAFOs generate large amounts of waste and require antibiotics and other drugs to keep the animals healthy.
From agribusiness’ point of view, a cow is simply a vehicle for converting plant material to protein and the point is to get the cow to maximum weight in the shortest period of time. In other words the game is to minimize the time to slaughter for these animals. The same applies to chickens, turkeys and hogs. This maximizes profits. Corn does a better job of speeding up this process than does grass. Corn can be commodified and stored; grass can’t. Cheap corn made beef and in particular fast food hamburgers cheap. Those cheap hamburgers are actually subsidized by American taxpayers with the subsidies paid to farmers.
As a reaction to the inhumane treatment of animals in CAFOs and the unhealthiness of chicken and beef provided by animals brought to maturity in these confining conditions where they literally tromp around in their own excrement day after day, the organic movement has taken hold.
Cow excrement which used to be spread on fields by manure spreaders on small family farms and which provided healthy nutrients back to the soil is now so toxic due to the corn fed diet that it can’t be used as fertilizer and is placed in lagoons where it languishes much like spent nuclear fuel. In both cases there is nothing that can be done with the toxic sludge except to store it in perpetuity. Only there have been burst dams and the resultant toxic sludge has oozed into streams and rivers.
Organic food has also caught the attention of big food producers whose lobbying has shaped the US organic food laws to their benefit. What is considered organic has been defined as loosely as possible. The result is that instead of what the consumer visualizes as a bucolic family farm with happy chickens scratching for worms has instead become big business with CAFOs similar to nonorganic food production.
The only difference is that the chickens must be fed organic chicken feed i.e. there can be no chemical additives, hormones or antibiotics in the feed. In order to qualify as free range, the chickens must have the possibility of going outside on some grass. So the large feeding pens have a little door which the chickens can go out and romp around on a fifteen foot strip of grass but only for a short time before they are slaughtered. Most chickens acclimated to the large enclosed pens don’t even bother, but they can be marketed as “free range chickens.”
Big Organic food production is hardly the small family farm that most people envision. It turns out that there’s organic and then there’s … organic. Large scale operations have invaded the organic industry. They operate much like non-organic food industries. In many cases they are one and the same. Take Horizon milk, for instance. I have been drinking Horizon organic milk for a couple of years. I was sort of amazed to see it pop up at Food 4 Less and even, recently, at Wal-Mart. I should have suspected that this was a really huge operation, but until I started researching this article, I didn’t realize how huge. It turns out that Horizon is just another brand of Dean Foods:
Dean Foods is by far the largest U.S. dairy processor. According to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Dean processes 40 percent of fluid milk consumed in the U.S., which it distributes in a dizzying array of brands. Its dominance extends to organic milk, too — Dean’s Horizon brand is the largest supplier of organic milk.
Like a lot of Big Organic food suppliers, Horizon is pushing the limits of the meaning of “organic.” The Cornucopia Institute has a dispute going with Horizon over the illegal practice of bringing conventional heifers onto organic farms. These heifers are then converted to organic although they haven’t been raised to organic standards up till then.
According to Cornucopia News:
Conventional replacement dairy calves, typically bought at auctions, likely receive antibiotics, toxic insecticides and parasiticides as well as conventional feed during their first year of life before being “converted” to organics—all practices strictly prohibited in organic production.
“Real organic farmers don’t buy replacement heifers,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “Real organic farmers sell [surplus] heifers.”
Demonstrably lower levels of stress, superior health and improved vitality of the cows separates authentic organic dairy farms from factory farms masquerading as organic, according to the farm policy research group.
“In the factory farm model, the animals are pushed for such high production that, just like in the conventional confinement model, after as few as 1 to 2 years, they are so sick, or they are not healthy enough to breed, that they are slaughtered,” Kastel clarified. “Organic cows are generally so healthy, and live such long lives, that many of the baby calves born can be sold to other farmers, creating an alternative revenue stream for organic farmers.”
The fact that large scale organic farms use the same CAFOs as do the large scale conventional farms explains a lot why there is as much e. coli found in organic food as there is in non-organic food. In both cases animals are concentrated together and live out their days in their own excrement. Only difference is that “organic” cows and chickens are fed organic feed (supposedly) and no antibiotics or hormones. Because of living conditions, organic CAFOs will result in more sick animals even than conventional CAFOs which at least have the advantage of antibiotics.
Another issue with organic produce is that it is allowed into the country from foreign countries as long as it was produced according to organic standards. Of course there is little or no enforcement mechanism to ensure that organic vegetables and fruits from abroad adhere to the highest standards.
Many might think that the issue of food production has nothing to do with climate change, but they would be wrong. Grassing over the huge number of acres now devoted to corn in order to feed ruminants (cows) would in fact do a lot to offset fossil fuel emissions. If the 16 million acres now used to grow corn in the US were converted to pasture, 14 billion pounds of carbon would be removed from the atmosphere by the grasses and put into the soil as enrichment, the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off the road. Cows, and, therefore, humans, would be so much healthier. As much as one third of the greenhouse gasses that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to food production and transport. Locally grown would reduce the GHGs produced from transporting food all over the world.
In another article I will spell out the differences in more detail between the Big Organic food producers and the local small family operations of real organic farms which are not only organic according to the letter of the law but in the spirit of true organic farming as well.