To Industrial Corn, We're Addicted!

Reader Contribution by Bill Hakanson
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 “A low-quality meat and sweetener, a shoddy alternative car fuel, an agrarian crisis visited upon our neighbor to the south … that’s more or less the corn crop,” says Tom Philpott, Grist food editor.

For the complete article, see Why are we propping up corn production again?

The crop in the foreground of this photo is soybeans. Corn is the crop seen on the borders of the soybean patch. It’s a beautiful sight repeated over and over again up here in northwest Pennsylvania.

Soybean is the primary crop farmers grow in rotation with corn. Beans add nitrogen to the soil, but even at that, heavy doses of fertilizer and other chemicals (fossil fuels) are required to produce these crops.

According to the National Corn Growers Association, a quarter of U.S. farmland is used to grow corn. Another quarter is used to grow soybeans. The total acreage is the size of Texas. This is because corn and corn byproducts are part of so many other products … many of which are consumed by people.

Most crops grown here in Pennsylvania are used for animal feed: dairy cows, beef cows, and other animals including chickens — for meat and eggs, pigs, etc. The dairy and beef farmers up here know precisely how much acreage they need to plant to need to feed their animals.

I refer to the local farms as “integrated,” because they start from seed and end up with milk or beef. In many ways they are self sustaining and not “industrial.” It is a common experience to see and smell cow manure being spread on the local fields so they can produce the grains eaten by the same animals from which this fertilizer is derived. Sure, chemicals are used but not to the extent required by the farms that only grow grain.

In addition to “field corn”, most farmers plant and tend a small patch of sweet corn. “Sweet corn for sale” signs have sprouted at the end of every other driveway as gardeners are selling their excess. In addition to eating off the ear, organic, non-GMO corn can be a great food source for polenta, grits and corn meal.

According to Tom McCoy, a second generation beef farmer, a beef cow raised in the pasture takes three years to reach harvest weight; vs. one year for a feedlot raised cow. Feeding cows corn and chemical supplements in a feed lot — as opposed to grass in the pasture — results in fast growth and high fat content.

The cow raised in the pasture does not have the fat content of a feed lot animal, and let’s face it, people like fat in their meat. Dick Hirsch, owner of our local meat market says he tried selling pasture fed been several years ago. At first folks bought it and tried it, but then migrated back to feed lot beef. This is another example of how animals fed corn and it byproducts are fatter than those not fed these products.

Another interesting statistic I’ve read suggests it takes as much land to grow the corn needed to produce feed lot animals as it takes to pasture raise the same number of animals. And it is suggested dedicating the land to pasture is better for it and obviously consumes less “energy” than raising corn.

What you may not realize is the government subsidizes corn production to an enormous extent. To quote from Mr. Philpott’s article, “Between 1995 and 2006, the government paid out $56 billion in corn subsidies, the Environmental Working Group reports. Corn is our most lavishly subsidized food crop, by a wide margin; it drew more in subsidies over that period than wheat ($22 billion), soybeans ($14 billion), and rice ($11 billion) — combined.” To me, what this means is we are paying much less for food than we would be if it were not subsidized; and thereby prompting us to eat more of the wrong, corn-based foods. That’s why we’re overweight!

The USDA expects this year to be the best ever for corn and other grain production. Growing conditions here in Pennsylvania have been extraordinary: hot and humid, and plenty of rain. Most corn stalks exceed a man’s height.

In corn belt states, “industrial” farmers grow only corn, beans and other grains in mass quantities for sale on the commodity market. I have a friend in Kansas who grows 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans. He sells it all at auction and has no idea where it ends up. I have another friend whose son raises 21,000 pigs each year. He has no idea from where his pig feed comes.

The foods produced by both of these farmers are dependent on heavy doses of growth-stimulating chemicals. These chemicals are passed along to consumers in their food.

What’s my point? It’s great to sit down to a meal, look out my window, and see the land from which everything on my plate came.

Grow as much as you can yourself, and support your local farmers market.