Saturday, January 31, 2009

King Corn

I just finished watching a very interesting documentary on . . . corn. Yes, that most ubiquitous of grains has a rich and intriguing history--particularly so during the last 40 years. Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis have produced King Corn, a thoroughly enjoyable and educational film about how corn has come to dominate the American Farm.

Without being preachy or alarmist, these two college buddies track down where corn comes from and where it goes (mostly straight into us!), all the while raising an acre of corn themselves. They discover that corn from the Midwest is used mainly to 1) feed cows or 2) make high fructose corn syrup.

The section on feed lots is especially disturbing. I love beef, but beef has undergone some significant changes. In the old days cows ate grass. After a few years, they were, um, . . . converted into food. Today, cows eat corn and kept inactive. They are ready to be sold in a little over 100 days. Good thing, too, because all that corn just about shuts down the average bovine digestive system and causes severe illness (70% of antibiotics in the US are consumed by cows). The meat produced by modern cows is something like 9 times as fatty as the old grass-fed cows.

Then there's corn syrup. Check out a few labels the next time you visit the grocery store or convenience mart. Nearly every packaged product contains it. Americans consume less table sugar than in decades past but far more sweeteners, overwhelmingly corn syrup.

Why do we have so much corn? I'm glad you asked. Stay focused--this is important. Before 1972, the government paid farmers NOT to grow corn. Starting in 1973 the government began paying farmers to produce record crops--we probably just had another one last year. We have mountains of corn just waiting to be dumping into the food supply. If there is such a high supply, doesn't that lower the price of corn? You betcha. Don't the farmers lose money? Every time. Then why do they keep producing more and more corn? Answer: the government pays them to in the form of subsidies (think Farm Bill, the congressman's most sacred cow).

The documentary makes the case that all this cheap, abundant corn is directly related to the modern rise in obesity and diabetes. However, the filmmakers also reveal the flip side of the coin: we now spend only about 16% of our incomes on food. This percentage used to be MUCH higher only a few decades ago. Cheap corn has lead to way to a great diversity of food products at historically low prices. It drives both prosperity and malady.

The film does not dole out any solutions, if a "solution" is even needed. Mine is simple: Get government out of the food production industry. The free market would deliver healthier food (if we really wanted it) at fair prices. Many of the more unsightly byproducts and unintended consequences of government intervention would be eliminated. Individuals (on average) always act in their own self-interests. Right now, the government is dictating (albeit, indirectly) those interests. If government got out of the way, the free market would direct them (and in a much gentler way). Bottom line: Go watch this movie--it's much more fun than it sounds!


Travis said...

Sounds like an interesting film, and I think you made it sound like a real fun documentary! I also agree that government should neither pay farmers to grow corn nor pay them to not grow it. They should simply ensure that farmers are free to farm.

Gail said...

Wait a minute there is a bigger issue here. You mean to tell me that the government paid farmers to produce corn with our tax dollars and then We had to use our money AGAIN to buy the corn so we paid for it twice not to mention the fact that the corn we bought could have been taxed too!!!
Big Government is smart and EVIL!

Philip said...

Not only that, Gail. We also have to pay increased medical costs (soon to be higher with "free" health care) for all the obese folks.