Saturday, February 28, 2009


This video segment, originally broadcast January 28, 2009 on PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, tells only a portion of the story of corn - the tip of the iceberg if you will.

America produces a lot of corn. It is America's number one cash crop; forget the amber waves of grain - in 2007, the U.S. produced 12.32 billion bushels of corn, far more than wheat (2.17 billion bushels) and soybeans (2.88 billion bushels) combined. But the history of corn in America is one of "unintended consequences" presenting themselves time and time again since colonial days, and the pattern of unintended consequences continues into the present.

The corn plant clearly dominates the American landscape. Today 125,000 square miles of American soil are devoted to corn production, with the "corn belt" states of Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota producing over 50% of our corn. Production of corn has always been an essential component of the American economy (such as it is), and markets have to be continuously identified, created, and exploited to accommodate this bounty.

Even before the Revolution, a glut of corn was created by an expansion of the corn belt into Kentucky and Ohio. Since there were no roads in this region and most transportation was by packhorse, it cost more to transport corn than it could bring on the Eastern markets. But 10 bushels of corn could be reduced to 1 gallon of whiskey. So farmers distilled the corn into "liquid assets" that could easily be shipped or bartered. Practically every farmer made whiskey and it became a medium of exchange. It didn't take long for the new government to realize that it could tax that whiskey.

Backwoods farmers in western Pennsylvania eventually revolted over the stiff excise tax placed on their whiskey, and in 1794, George Washington needed 13,000 troops to put down what came to be called the "Whiskey Rebellion." With more men than he had led during the Revolution, Washington put down the uprising with his Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, by his side.

But by this time, the young nation was awash in a flood of cheap, corn-produced liquor. By 1810, there were at least 2,000 distillers producing more than two million gallons of whiskey. By the 1820s, whiskey sold for twenty-five cents a gallon, making it cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk. As a result, America became a nation of drunks. Government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over 15 years of age amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine. Actual consumption may have been as high as ten gallons of whiskey per person, over four times the current rate.

Instead of a morning coffee break, Americans stopped work at 11:00 a.m. to drink. A lot of work went undone, but this apparently was not a problem in this slow-paced, preindustrial age. And a drunken stage coach driver posed little threat, since the horses knew the route and made their own way home.

Writing at the time, Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that the sudden disappearance of traditional boundaries had left people bereft and disoriented, with negative consequences for social control. The rootless individual, seeking his fortune, living by his own wits, and answerable to no social superior, became celebrated as the national character ideal. The stable, self-policing community was demolished, and the forms of behavior that grew out of an inherited concept of reciprocal rights and obligations became obsolete. But it was also the availability of cheap liquor made from the abundant corn that led to the problem.

During this period, the drinking of hard liquor increased in settings that no longer even offered the pretense of other activities. The tavern or inn, where food and lodging were provided in addition to drink, gave way almost exclusively to the grogshop, essentially an early version of the saloon. Solitary drinking, unencumbered by social control, also increased during this time, as a sizable number of Americans began to drink to excess by themselves for the first time. The solo binge was a new pattern of drinking in which periods of abstinence were interspersed every week, month, or season with one to three-day periods of solitary inebriation. When people did drink, they were more likely to go on binges where they drank all out.

All of this in time led to the Temperance Movement of the 19th Century and ultimately to Prohibition. In the years after the Civil War, the Temperance Movement was most active in the corn-producing Midwestern and western states, where the problem likely was the most visible. Of course, Prohibition itself was a singular failure. Mark Twain remarked that Prohibition drove "drunkenness behind doors and into dark places, and [did] not cure it or even diminish it." The associated rise in bootlegging and organized crime is the poster child for unintended consequences.

But soon after the 18th Amendment was passed in 1919 banning alcohol, farmers had found new ways to increase corn production even more. In 1930, a hybrid corn was developed whose sturdier stalks allowed the plants to stand crowded side by side and resist blowing over. Then in 1947, munitions plants found themselves with a surplus of ammonium nitrate - the key ingredient in making explosives, but no longer needed since the Second World War had ended. A way was found to convert ammonium nitrate into a chemical fertilizer that boosted soil nitrogen levels and made it possible to plant more corn year after year without soil exhaustion.

But the biggest advancement came in the late 60s, when a Japanese chemist discovered the enzyme glucose isomerase. Ten years later, this discovery was used to develop the perfect low-cost sweetness substitute - high-fructose corn syrup.

Then in 1973, a new policy allowed direct subsidy payments to farmers. Before the 1970s, farm policy supported corn prices through loans, government purchases and land rest. The new policy encouraged farmers to grow and sell their corn at any price. And grow it, they did, and the rest is history.

Over the following three decades, corn syrup and corn byproducts found their way into nearly every processed food and drink. Coca Cola replaced sugar with corn syrup in 1980 to save a few pennies and Pepsi followed suit in 1984. At lower cost, drinks and meals then went super-sized, because marketers quickly discovered that Americans would consume 30% larger portions and pay a few more cents for “value meals.”

According to a chemical analysis of dishes served at McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, American fast food is almost entirely produced from corn. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used a stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to determine the origin of molecules present in hamburgers, chicken, and fries. The researchers found corn to be the almost exclusive food source of the beef and chicken served in fast food restaurants. The researchers also uncovered evidence to suggest that fast food restaurants are misleading consumers as to the oils used in preparing french fries and that animals slaughtered for production are kept in confined quarters, rather than outdoors.

On average, we each consume 200 calories more per day than we did 30 years ago – mostly in the form of hidden corn calories. We consistently eat corn and wash it down with more corn. And if you’re poor, it’s even worse. Foods made with corn, aided by government subsidies, are often the cheapest and contain the most calories. By subsidizing corn, we have pointed those at the greatest risk to foods that are certain to make them sick.

So after creating an epidemic of alcoholism, which led to epidemic crime during the resulting Prohibition, corn is now creating an epidemic of obesity. But the marketing of this bountiful crop still continues with the latest use of corn as a source of ethanol bio-fuel.

It takes a lot of fossil-fuel energy to grow and harvest corn and to convert it into ethanol. If you take that into account, only about 20% of each gallon of corn ethanol represents new energy. Further, the boom in corn for ethanol has also led farmers to convert more land into cropland. That releases carbon that was stored in shrubs and trees and in the soil, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The result, surprisingly, is that corn ethanol may actually be worse for the climate than gasoline.

The federal Renewable Fuel Standard, enacted in 2005 and updated in 2007, dictates that by 2015 the nation must produce 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol, compared with only about 2 billion in 2000. Government subsidies for ethanol is making sure this happens. As a result, about a third of the nation’s corn is already being turned into ethanol.

This has led to a major expansion in production of corn. Some land that was once used for soybean production is now devoted to corn — and land that had been set aside under the federal Conservation Reserve Program has been plowed up to grow even more corn. Conservation Reserve Program land serves both as a buffer to keep pesticides and fertilizers from leaching into waterways and as a rich habitat for wildlife. Such areas can also accumulate topsoil over time. Turning them into cropland essentially eliminates all of these benefits.

The switch away from soybeans, meanwhile, may be leading indirectly to the destruction of rainforests in Brazil and other nations. With less soy being grown in the U.S., the price of soybeans is rising, pushing other countries to cut down trees in order to make way for a cash crop. The felling of forests is a major contributor to climate change: trees that are burned or chopped down and left to rot add heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

A better source of ethanol may be crop wastes such as corn cobs and stalks because they don’t increase the demand for agricultural land. Neither would another candidate source, native perennial grasses like switchgrass, if grown on marginal lands. These ingredients are not as easy as corn kernels to convert into ethanol, but there are a number of companies attempting to commercialize what is know as the production of “cellulosic ethanol.” If it can be done economically and in a way that keeps greenhouse gas emissions low, farmers may be able to profit from the ethanol boom in a way that’s easier on the climate.

The Native Americans first gave maize, field corn, to the arriving European settlers in the early 16th Century, and we've been killing ourselves with it ever since.

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