America is planting more and more corn, and our tax dollars are helping to pay for it. But is more corn what we need?
Between 1995 and 2009 the U.S. Government gave a total of $73.8 billion dollars to subsidize corn in the U.S. The program that was established in the depression era to help struggling farmers has turned into a cash cow for corporate agribusiness that are manipulating this system to increase profits while selling Americans cheap, nutritionally-void food made from modified corn.
Prior to the New Deal act of 1933, commodity prices for corn and wheat were determined by the free market. Fluctuations in crop prices and continually depressed prices led the government to create a price floor to manage supply and demand and reduce the extreme financial strain on rural farmers. This price floor provided a fair income and stability to working farmers.
In the 1970's, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz from the Nixon administration sought to eliminate the supply management policy and restore the "free market". This process was finalized with the Freedom to Farm Act in 1996, which eliminated price floors by 2003. Shortly after this act was established, crop prices plummeted and the government was forced to use taxpayer money to bailout the farmers.
According to the Farm Subsidy Database (www.farm.ewg.org), corn subsidies in 1995 were about $2 billion dollars. By 2005, the yearly amount had risen to $10 billion.
Who benefits from these subsidies? The top 10% of big farms collected 74% of all subsidies, with the rest of the farms receiving only $572 on average per year (1995-2009) (Farm Subsidy Database). The farms receiving the majority of the financial handout are not the struggling farmers of rural america, but large farm conglomerates that are in no immediate danger of failure or bankruptcy, and often have ties to other industries benefiting from cheap corn, including the meat industry, the seed industry, pharmaceutical and antibiotic manufacturers.
In addition to becoming a strain on our tax dollars, subsidized corn is also causing health and weight problems for average americans.
Corn has become a main ingredient of american's diets, often in the disguised shape of corn by-products such as dextrose, fructose, corn and food starch that are part of our fast food and soft drinks. Many people are choosing fast food, soft drinks and processed foods over healthier fruits and vegetables simply because the calories are made more affordable thanks in part to the subsidies given to the major corporations growing corn. And we are beginning to see what a corn-centric diet is doing for our health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the united states in the last 20 years. Thirty-three states have an obesity rate equal to or greater than 25% of their population. The rise in obesity rates has also resulted in much higher medical costs for the obese, due to chronic diseases associated with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, and several types of cancer (kidney, colon, postmenopausal breast).
There are several factors that have led to this sharp increase in the obesity rates in america, but subsidized corn seems to be pulling the strings.
Large agriculture corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill purchase corn to be modified into High Fructose Corn Syrup, a artificial sweeter that has been linked to the recent rise of obesity and type 2 diabetes by researchers from Princeton University and is found in an alarmingly massive number of food and beverage products. An article published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states, "The consumption of fructose has increased, largely because of an increased consumption of soft drinks and many other beverages that are high in fructose and because of the consumption of foods such as breakfast cereals, baked goods, condiments, and prepared desserts sweetened with sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). ...long-term consumption of diets high in fat and fructose is likely to lead to increased energy intake, weight gain, and obesity." (Elliot, Keim, Stern, Teff, Havel. "Fructose, Weight Gain and the Insulin Resistance Syndrome. p911-922)
Our solution should be to reduce corn subsidies for corporations that are making a large profit from corn growth and sales. These companies are not struggling financially, and are merely using subsidies to supplement their income. If we continue to encourage corn growth for conversion into unhealthy fast food and other corn-based food products, we will only be incurring more costs to our society's health and wellness.
We should instead subsidize organic and diverse crops for small local farms according to locational climate and which crops are in season, and make organic farming a viable career choice for the next generation of local farmers.
1. Elliot, Kein, Stern, Teff, Havel. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. November 2002 vol. 76 no. 5 911-922 http://www.ajcn.org/content/76/5/911.full