Friday, February 24, 2006

Archer Daniel Midland Cornholes the World

I have a pet nutritional theory, that the replacement of truly sweet sugar with not very sweet but cheap and plentiful corn syrup is what has caused our worldwide obesity epidemic. Corn syrup is not satisfying, so people just keep eating and drinking more for the satisfaction that only real sugar can provide. I'm no scientist, but the explosion of obesity has happened in the last 30 years. What has changed? Read the label of anything in your cupboard. It contains some corn-based sweetener.

WaPo, March 2003: Sweet but Not So Innocent?
High-Fructose Corn Syrup May Act More Like Fat Than Sugar in the Body

In 1966, refined sugar, also known as sucrose, held the No. 1 slot, accounting for 86 percent of sweeteners used, according to the USDA. Today, sweeteners made from corn are the leader, racking up $4.5 billion in annual sales and accounting for 55 percent of the sweetener market. That switch largely reflects the steady growth of high-fructose corn syrup, which climbed from zero consumption in 1966 to 62.6 pounds per person in 2001.

Corn is also an environmental disaster. From

Attack of the killer corn

Bolstered by government subsidies that have averaged about $4 billion annually since 1995, U.S. production accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world's corn output. Every year, the USDA reports, corn farmers dump more than 10 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer onto their fields -- a heavier dose than for any other crop by a factor of nearly three. (Source: Download table 2 from this USDA/Economic Research page.)

This annual cascade of "artificial fertility" (as the farmer and activist Jason McKenney calls it) parches soil of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It crushes biodiversity and makes soils reliant on more fertilizer. According to McKenney, less than a fifth of that nitrogen makes it into corn plants.

The rest leeches into groundwater, feeding algae blooms that smother water-borne life from the northern reaches of the Mississippi River clear down to the Gulf of Mexico, where a dead zone about the size of New Jersey emerges each year, blotting out what was once a robust source of food and jobs, to say nothing of an important marine habitat. As Richard Manning puts it in the winter 2004 American Scholar (unavailable online):

Already, the Dead Zone has seriously damaged what was once a productive fishery, meaning that a high-quality source of low-cost protein is being sacrificed so that a source of low-quality, high-input subsidized protein can blanket the Upper Midwest.

In a sense, by ending up in the Gulf, that fertilizer is coming home: nitrogen-based fertilizer derives from natural gas.


The real beneficiaries of this twisted system aren't most corn growers; it's the buyers, processing giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. That one-billion-bushel surplus of corn in 2004 exerted enormous downward pressure on corn prices. In 2004, a bushel -- 56 pounds -- of corn brought in $1.95 to the farmer. That's about 3 cents a pound. At that rate, the only way a farm can make any money at all is to scale up as much as possible and then hope for a government check. No wonder mid-sized farms are rapidly going extinct.

Archer Daniels Midland makes a killing off of our cheap-food system; a few mega-farms in the Midwest do OK as well. But for most people, and for the environment, what we get is a government-underwritten disaster.

I can't imagine a better place for greens, social-justice activists, and real-food enthusiasts to unite for change.

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