Corn is a wonderful vegetable. Admittedly, the stuff we consider corn is actually maize, but I’m not here to argue semantics. The kernel of maize is a mature ovary of fruit fused with a seed coat. Corn can be eaten raw, cooked, or ground into flour for bread. Good stuff this corn. Perhaps that is why so many Native American cultures used it as the basis for their agricultural system. However, we decided that there can’t be too much of a good thing. Too bad that’s not true.
If you drive through the Great Plains states, you will be seeing a ton of cornfields. In fact, that is probably the only type of farming you will see. We have turned our central Great Plains into a monoculture, where one crop dominates. This causes a number of problems. First, this limits the genetic variability of the crops. If a blight or fungus decided to mosey its way into a corn field and do some damage, you can bet that the whole system is likely to fail, because now, certain plants that are resistant to this infestation are gone. It is all the same. Second, it depletes the soil. When the early white settlers were moving into the Great Plains, the grass had root systems several feet deep. There was a huge amount of top soil. But due to constantly farming the same thing and not rotating crops, we have decreased the topsoil levels to a paltry few inches. Where did this soil go? Into the streams. Where do the streams go? In that area, all roads may lead to Rome, but all streams head to the Mississippi River. And where does the Mississippi River go? Unless you flunked seventh grade social studies, you know that it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. These sediment deposits disrupt the natural ecosystem of the Gulf. They also carry with them nitrates from fertilizers (more on that in the next segment), which create huge algal blooms. The algal blooms don’t have all that much oxygen in the rather warm Gulf stream waters (warm liquids don’t hold gases as well as cold ones (why pop is better cold)), so they die relatively quickly, but not before using up all of the oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone. This is a continuous cycle of nutrient depletion and algal blooms, creating a large dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi.
And we eat it. Corn, that is. Well, perhaps eat is isn’t the best word. We ingest it in some form. Corn is convertible into tons of cool food additives, like high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, corn starch, corn oil, and many more of your favorite food label regulars. We find it everywhere. Why? (That one question is so important). It is common because it is cheap. Why? One word: subsidy. Why? Because big companies love to use corn. Why? Aha, now that is the right question. The corn kernel is essentially a packet of starch that can be broken down and rearranged as all of those additives, sweeteners, and preservatives listed above. So to keep their costs down, companies need to keep corn cost down.
Not only is corn convertible to foodstuffs, it can be made into, drum roll please… ethanol! Ethanol amongst the dumbest ideas I ever heard, and to think that I once believed it had potential. Right now, whether you like it or not, your gas is 10 percent ethanol. It’s required by law. Ethanol is a renewable bio-fuel. It may burn a bit more cleanly than gas, but, depending on which study you read, some scientists claim that you need to put 1.2 calories of corn into the system to get 1 calorie’s worth of ethanol (this depends on what you consider a cost of farming and producing for corn ethanol. Some analysts believe tractors fall from the sky so they don’t need to be considered in cost analysis). It doesn’t take a rocket scientists to do the math.
Cows are grazing animals. They are supposed to eat grasses. So when farmers take cows to pasture, they can have some fun, eat some grass, chew some cud, poop some poop (fertilizing the soil so more grass grows) and everybody goes home happy. Now, cut to the factory farms. Cows stand with little to no room to move, knee deep in their own feces. Factory farms use corn to feed all these cows. But wait, didn’t I just say that cows are supposed to eat grasses? Corn is not a natural part of their diet, and it completely messes up their digestive system. So now what are we going to do with all this fecal matter? Well, the brilliant solution we have come up with is to create giant cesspools of crap. These, in turn, seep into the ground water and streams, killing those systems, much like nitrates from fertilizers created a dead zone in the Gulf. Yum. Good, clean water. Also, whenever we divert corn to ethanol, or to livestock feed, we divert it from people who need it for food. And as the amount of corn being grown for food decreases, the prices increase, causing many people to go hungry. Seems like a system designed to fail! It gets better. We use gas with ethanol in it to ship corn from the Plains to the factory farms in the Carolinas and the Dakotas, and then the cows to the processing plant, and then your local supermarket. Every calorie of commercial food you eat expends almost 10 fossil fuel calories. Talk about inefficient.
The Cosmic Perspective
But, you say, how can I make a difference?
You have buying power. The purchases you make directly influence companies and our governmental policies. Buy grass fed beef instead of factory farm meat if you have the money to do so. It will have less fat and will taste better! Or, eat less meat. I am not asking you to become vegetarians. In fact, I think vegetarianism is unhealthy (The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Kieth) and often committed to for the wrong reasons. The clear-cutting of forests to make room for fields for cattle, the environmental impact of slaughterhouses, transportation costs and the sheer amount of methane gas emitted by cattle herds, is damaging to the planet. Also, eating less meat will positively affect our health in the long run. The average American obtains 80 percent of their caloric intake from meats, 7 percent from pop and processed foods, and 3 percent from plants. Is it any surprise that 30 percent of the population is obese, 8 percent have diabetes and 1 in 5 adults have high cholesterol. 400,000 people in the US die from obesity related diseases each year. Type II diabetes was once thought to be only found in adults. Now, this generation is set to be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. We should try to move towards 45-5-50 with regards to our caloric intake. This will help us lower our cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight.
But it costs so much.
Well, thanks to those nice government subsidies, corn fed beef and corn products can be sold cheaply. If the actual cost of those corn products was displayed in the supermarket, people would never buy them. Think of all the water, fertilizers, pesticides, energy, and man hours went into making those foods. I think that may be worth a bit more that what the supermarkets are saying it is worth. Not to mention the environmental costs!
Think about it.