The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Much Ado About Corn

I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma after literally having it on my reading list for three years (and in my physical book-pile for one). Another excellent example of scientifically-literate long-form journalism. I do recommend it, even if it also takes you three years to get around to reading it. (Those who want to delve deeper into topics like these sometimes look into classes from accredited online colleges.)

The first few chapters are all about corn, and how it’s behind everything we eat. Some Nixon-era agricultural reforms, WWI-era innovations in industrial chemistry (i.e., the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic nitrates), and some clever Depression-era cross-breeding combined to create the perfect storm for the agricultural industry.

Long story short, the United States produces way more corn than it needs, therefore it gets used for everything, and the flooded market drives the price of corn down to maybe 60% of what it costs to produce. The government subsidizes the farmers to keep them afloat, but it’s still not a very profitable business for farmers.

Rather, it’s the secondary industries that get filthy rich from the massive availability of artificially cheap corn. The beef industry feeds their cows on corn rather than grass (which is free) because they can keep their pre-slaughtered meat in stalls rather than investing in grazing land. Recent studies suggest that the heart issues associated with red meat may be more due to the corn-fed diet of our red meat, rather than the red meat itself.

Meanwhile Coca-Cola and similar companies turn something that’s nutritious enough in its natural form to be a staple crop for some cultures, into diabetes in a can for North Americans who don’t need the extra calories (perhaps you thought it was sugar in your carbonated beverages, but in North America it’s not, it’s high-fructose corn syrup).

If you go further back, it’s not even corn at the base of our food chain, it’s oil. The Bosch-Haber process we depend on for our artificial fertilizers is energy intensive and requires more energy from fossil fuels put into it than the food energy we get out of it. But without artificial fertilizers, the ridiculous yields that cause corn to be practically worthless would not be possible. So we’re burning all the oil we can to create more corn than we need, which we then dispose of in any way possible, usually at the detriment of our own health.

It’s a great deal for certain industries and terrible for almost everyone else. But it’s an interesting example of how very different issues can be related: human health, environmental issues, industry, economics, government policy, consumer behaviour.

Leave a Reply