It’s rare to find a single cause to explain so very large a chunk of a complex and intractable problem. But if the problem is the way our food system is out of whack — the way the price of the food we buy fails to reflect its cost – that explanation is the U.S. government’s corn subsidy.
Between 1995 and 2010, the federal government shelled out about $80 billion to prop up corn farmers, the Environmental Working Group has calculated. Those few billion a year in subsidies — direct payments, price supports, crop-insurance-premium subsidies — make it possible to sell corn for less than it costs to grow it.
What’s wrong with that? Well, when the subsidies began, about 40 years ago, we had pretty much all the corn we needed. But then corn got both cheaper and more plentiful, a dangerous combination. As detailed in excellent recent documentaries like “Food, Inc.,” and “King Corn,” now America’s growing industrial-scale food complex had to find new uses for the product.
That helped give us, for instance, high-fructose corn syrup, which as more people are learning in the wake of books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” is a big reason Americans themselves are getting bigger and bigger. (The obesity epidemic dates from just a few years after the introduction of the high-calorie, nutrient-free corn syrup into the marketplace, where it now inhabits most processed foods.)
The corn glut also made the grain the go-to feed for meat animals — especially cows, which can’t really digest it properly. As “Food Inc.” notes, that’s one big reason we have E coli. Most of the corn grown in the U.S. is feed corn, by the way (pigs and chickens eat it too, and even farmed fish).
There was so much cheap corn that we had to start exporting it — flooding the market in places like Mexico, where small farmers whose ancestors have grown the stuff for centuries were put out of business, many ultimately forced to come north to find work.
Farmers who now had a big incentive to grow corn had an effective disincentive to grow anything else. That raised the price of other crops and sped along the ecologically disastrous practice of monocropping, or planting hundreds of consecutive acres of land with exactly the same thing.
There’s even more to the ecological fallout of cornography. Corn is pesticide, herbicide and even genetically-modified-organism intensive, so if you like your food, you know, healthy … well, sorry.
And with cheap feed came the rise of the high-density animal feed lot, with not only inhumane conditions for the animals and worse food, but tons of manure to attempt to dispose of … or to run off into the waterways, take your pick.
Moreover, making animals cheaper to feed made meat cheaper. So Americans eat huge amounts of animal flesh — an environmentally ruinous proposition, because it requires ever more cropland and other resources to grow those animals.
Don’t get me wrong: In a consumer economy, our food system isn’t too much more screwed up than anything else. Any thing you turn into a commodity whose main function is to make money for its seller is going to get corrupted. Environmental damage will ensue, as will plenty of other suffering that’s not accounted for in the supermarket price tag.
But getting rid of the corn subsidy would be a huge step in the right direction. In fact, the U.S. Senate recently voted out another travesty, the subsidy for corn ethanol that came with its own set of unintended consequences, like rising corn prices.
Given the corn lobby’s power, such a vote would have been unthinkable even a year ago. And as it happens, the idiocy of corn ethanol will remain with us: Mandates for its use will ensure its continued production, even without subsidies.
Still, if one shovelful can be dumped back into this cornhole, why not two?