Tuesday, December 30, 2008

King Corn

Laura and I just watched a documentary, “King Corn,” which I highly recommend. To make this movie, two young men moved to Iowa temporarily, grew an acre of corn (or more accurately, had an acre of corn grown for them), and attempted to follow their crop as it made its way through the industrial agriculture pipeline, interviewing dozens of farmers, researchers, and other experts along the way. Their experiences reveal a lot about the way Empire America works.

The present situation with corn can be traced back to Earl Butz, who was Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture. Previous agricultural policy paid farmers not to grow crops, in order to keep commodity prices higher than they would have been otherwise. Under Butz and subsequent administrations, farmers were subsidized to grow corn, soybeans, and other crops. This kept commodity prices low, and maximized food production. (Plentiful, cheap food was designed to keep the rabble happy and complacent, by the way.) What resulted was a “race to the bottom” – farms got bigger, since only the largest operators could make a profit. And the quality of the corn itself decreased, since it was bred for one thing only – maximum yield per acre.

Traditionally, 40 bushels of corn per acre was considered a good harvest. These days, using genetically engineered corn and heavy use of synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, yields can be as high as 200 bushels per acre. But modern corn has a much lower protein content than earlier varieties, now consisting of mostly starch. In fact, modern corn is nothing more than an industrial raw material, to be converted, in huge factories, into animal feed and the now-ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup. (The movie was made just before the ethanol boom, which now absorbs much of the corn crop.)

Agricultural policy has caused the demise of the family farm. Only the largest farms can afford the monster tractors and harvesters required to prepare the soil, plant the seed, apply the necessary chemicals, and harvest the crop. Every step in the process is mechanized, and the tractors are far larger than anything we will ever see in this part of New Mexico. As one Iowa farmer said, “We prefer large fields so we don’t have to turn around as often.” Our relatively small, irrigated New Mexico fields don’t lend themselves to agriculture on the Iowa scale.

Of course, industrial agriculture in late-empire America is predicated on unlimited, cheap energy. Oil prices are down once again -- revealing the speculative nature of the oil pricing system -- but shortages will inevitably occur, and will get worse over time. You can bank on this. Whoops, there will be no more banks, sorry.

The unprecedented corn crops of recent years (there are literal mountains of corn piled next to the overwhelmed storage silos which are filled to capacity) has resulted in the ethanol scam. Briefly: ethanol requires more energy to produce than you get at the end of the process, duh! But all this corn has to be used for something.

One of these “somethings” is high fructose corn syrup, which is added to just about everything these days, and is a prime culprit behind our obesity epidemic. In the words of one expert interviewed in the film, not only does high fructose corn syrup have no food value, it disorders the metabolism. What a wonderfully American food it is!

Another “something” is the modern “grain fed beef” paradigm in which the cattle are fed a diet consisting of mostly corn. Corn is so cheap, feedlots use it to the exclusion of almost all other feeds. Unfortunately, cattle evolved to eat mostly grass, and a high corn diet gives them stomach ulcers. In typically American fashion, researchers are busily at work solving the symptom – finding medications to keep the ulcers under control long enough for the “animal unit” to reach optimal slaughtering weight. The meat from such animals has such a high fat content, it bears little relationship to what traditionally used to be called “beef.” What we now have is “fat disguised as a beef-like substance.”

The movie didn’t mention the fact that, thanks to industrial agriculture, our remaining topsoil is quickly flowing down the Mississippi River, and that all those excess agricultural chemicals in the runoff water are contributing a massive “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Talk about way beyond fucked up. Everybody the two young men interviewed said the same thing: “I don’t necessarily agree with the way modern agriculture is practiced, but I’ve got to make a living in the world as it is.” And so we stumble, step by step, into oblivion.

Empire America deserves to crash, and crash hard. The coming “Greatest Depression” will be beyond anything we have every dreamed of. Are you ready, dear reader? Are you making any preparations whatsoever? I didn’t think so! Why is this, exactly? Keep your internet channel tuned right here for further developments. Perhaps we will get to the bottom of all this before too much longer.


Blogger Society For the promotion of nongrass environments said...

I would like to add a rant to the stomach ulcer problem of corn fed cows. Corn fed cows also emit much methane, making worse the 380 ppm carbon we have in the air. (It oughta be 350 ppm carbon in our atmosphere)

Corn fed agribiz cow operations contribute to Global warming.

Soil degradation releases carbon into the atmosphere.

The good news; composting sequesters carbon. No til gardening and farming is way useful at keeping carbon in the soil.

I have no reference for this, gotta go look it up. -P

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

Gotta wonder... How'd it come to be that as a species, we've lost what Lao Tzu called "The Way"...

I appreciate your willingness to look this madness in the eye.
Michael Pollan writes some pretty sobering fare on the role of corn in his book "Omnivore's Dilemma".

Thanks for letting the emotion come through..


11:38 PM  

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