Failing with the best intentions pt 1: Corn

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When I think of corn, I think of a picturesque and apocryphal moment of generosity of Native Americans toward Pilgrims.  A golden food, lush, perfect, and tasty rests in hand woven baskets.  In the movie Pocahontas, a horrifically inaccurate disney tale, Pocahontas mistakes Smith’s description of metallic gold for maize.  (That part of it was true.  The New England settlers were far more concerned with gold than establishing a viable colony) When my wife thinks of corn, she thinks of the unending monotony of corn field after cornfields almost the entire drive from east of the rockies to the eastern seaboard and for good reason.  In the United States, corn production consumes more than 80 million acres.  More than enough to completely cover Germany.  Those 80 million acres produce  300 million tones of the of corn.  However, corn as a golden food staple is completely fraudulent.  You’re far more likely to put corn in your car engine and drink it out of a soda bottle than ever chew it off an ear.  Almost 40% of the total corn harvest is converted into ethanol to be used as a gasoline additive.  Another 30-40% of the corn goes to feed livestock.  10% goes to processing into corn syrup and other additives.  Americans are lucky if they eat 5-10% of the corn harvest as a grain or flour.

It sounds like a success story.  Why should you care?  Because corn represents the largest beneficiaries of US agricultural subsidies to the tune of 100 Billion Dollars.  It’s done  in a lot of different ways.  There are subsidies for turning corn into ethanol.  There is a depression era federal program that establishes a minimum price for a bushel of corn.  There are insurance programs for crop failures.  And about 20 billion in just plain and simple direct payment to farmers.  Furthermore, thanks to the mandates to produce ethanol global corn prices have skyrocketed (it’s not totally due to ethanol droughts and other weather related issues in other countries have raised the price of corn.  Domestically severe droughts have reduced crop yields).  The push for ever increasing corn yields has lead to the depletion of aquifers and freshwater systems, contaminated the environment with industrial runoff, and represents a threat to natural ecosystems.  I wouldn’t mind the loss of natural resources (after all, what good is a resource that isn’t utilized?) if it provided an equal or greater benefit to the country.  But whatever benefit there might be seems marginal at best.

There have been other market distortions.  For one thing, low corn prices have dramatically altered the way we raise meat in this country.  If there was ever an industry that was toxic to people and the environment, it’s the meat industry.  The Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) foul the land, the air, and the water.  As a whole, the meat industry represents one of the leading causes of pollution in the US and it’s thanks to the corn industry.  The low low cost of meat not only has economic and environmental externalities, it’s toxic to the consumer’s health.  And the cow’s health if anyone cares.  Feeding cows a high starch grain for the bulk of it’s diet for long periods of time is not healthy and increases the amount of toxic pollution associated with cows.  The dramatic growth of the cattle industry has driven increases in water consumption, production of harmful gasses, increased transportation costs, toxic wastes, and more.  The meat industry is so bad for the environment, no person who cares about the environment can, in good conscience, eat meat.

Other consumer health related issues related to corn subsidies are the dramatic increases in corn syrup and it’s even more evil younger brother high fructose corn syrup.  These syrups are directly related to farm subsidies and a significant contribution to the obesity epidemic and related health concerns such as diabetes.  The sugar subsidy lowers the costs for unhealthy foods making them seem more attractive relative to healthy foods which don’t get a subsidy.  It also promotes a monoculture driving producers and growers away from other varieties of food.  Why plant another promising crop that’s more expensive when you can grow corn risk free. Between ethanol (don’t get me started), meat, and food additives corn is one of the unhealthiest thing our country produces and we pay through the nose for it.

So what’s the alternative?  We end corn subsidies and ethanol mandates.  In the short run, mass numbers of farmers are going to lose massive amounts of money.  Many may go out of business.  Food prices will go up, particularly snack foods and meat products.  There will, without a doubt, be economic pain.  How can there be otherwise when we’ve been financially supporting the corn industry for 80 years?  The markets will need to time readjust.  In the mean time though, healthy foods will become financially more attractive.  Consider fresh produce is only expensive relative to other heavily subsidized food stuffs.  If you have to pay what your candy bar really costs, are you totally sure you really want it?  Meat will probably go back to being a semi-luxury good but, given the sheer number of really really disgusting processed meat products, it really is a plus.   As a protein source was never very good.  Ironically, it’s not even as good as corn.  Hopefully, what I would like to see, is the death of US monoculture.  Monoculture is expensive in the long run, and exceedingly unstable.  What’s more, changes in the climate will mandate changes in farming which won’t happen if we continue to subsidize farming losses.  It would also be fantastic if US farmers produced an abundance of a greater variety of foods.  If farmers can’t find a food crop that will grow in some of the most productive farmland in the world, then they have no right to be farmers.  The land should lie fallow until someone can.

I have no interest in demonizing the politicians who put into place or even perpetuate the subsidies.  They’re not facists, or socialists, or corrupt (at least not for this).  They are good people operating out of an honest desire to help people.  Nor can we fault the farmers who are genuinely caught in a very difficult position.  But there are better ways to help farmers than farm subsidies.  It’s a legacy system that worked really well once upon a time and has slowly evolved into something fairly monstrous and getting rid of it will be difficult.  There are a lot of people resistant to change, there are a huge number of vested interests with a long lobbying arm and lots of money.  But no matter how good the intentions the system of farm subsidies is an outrageous failure.

 

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