In the last thirty years or so, this country has started to grow a very large amount of corn. It’s not the corn of old, it’s not the multicolored picturesque corn that we see in those absurd visions of pilgrim and native harmony. The corn that takes up vast amounts of land in the midwest is essentially a raw material. It won’t taste good to anyone who picks and husks it fresh expecting a treat. Instead this corn must be processed and distributed to the various industries that have boomed around it. Some goes towards ethanol, some to the corn based sweetener industry, and most to containment feed lots as the primary component in the diets of livestock. To sustain these industries, the small corn farmer has almost entirely been replaced by huge farming operations whose efficiency within their trade has become more and more precise, yielding always more corn than we have ever previously seen. Although there have been major innovations in corn farming that have led to greater crop yields, these greater crop yields cause environmental dysfunction because it has also raised the number of animals raised and slaughtered for meat, the invention and distribution of corn syrup promotes the popularity of packaged foods, and the crop itself demands chemical intervention in the form of fertilizers and pesticides that negatively impact land and groundwater.
Most of us have a had a burger or two. Decades ago, cows raised for beef were born and supported on farms where for several years they would graze on grass before slaughter. In today’s cattle industry the small farm has been replaced with much larger organizations, similar to corn specific agriculture. These large members of the meat industry are working to meet the demand for ground beef in this nation that wreaks havoc on our bodies and environment. Restaurants and supermarkets are always fully stocked with very cheap meat; meat that would not be nearly as affordable to over-consume if it weren’t for corn. Instead of grazing on grass for three or four years, cows now live their full lives often within one year. They spend this short life in a containment lot that serves to actually prevent them from moving around. The cow’s inability to move or exercise makes for a fattened up animal in a shorter amount of time, and during their confinement they are eating mostly a grain that they have not evolved to be capable of digesting. In an effort to combat the disease caused by the corn based diet the meat industry relies upon for profit, they purchase and distribute more antibiotics to the cows than are utilized by people.
The corresponding corn and meat industries have an impact on the environment in that with more cattle comes more methane from the actual animal waste, which has been proven to be a factor in rising green house gases. Distributing these very large quantities of low quality meat products is another environmental concern because of the known consequences of shipping things all over the country or the world, in terms of the use of fuel and emissions from the use of fuel.
While much of our nation’s corn goes directly into producing cheap meat, it is almost as often designated to produce cheap sugar. Just as decades ago people were likely to have primarily eaten grass fed beef in their lifetime, corn syrup would have been considered an expensive or exotic ingredient because it’s complicated to produce. With the boom in corn farming productivity and crop yields, investment was made into mass producing this sickeningly sweet, very high fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup has become a primary source of sweetener, especially for foods that are tasty, accessible, convenient and cheap. Many foods containing high fructose corn syrup also contain the dreaded MSG. One could argue that this creates a bit of an addictive effect of these foods in their consumers.
Junk food is frequently seen packaged in individual servings. Individually packaged items require a bit more packaging material than foods bought or sold with the intention that the food will be prepared further by a person. Junk food is effortless for the consumer because it needs no preparation. Ready to eat foods and their in-expense and convenience must lead to higher consumption. It would seem that higher consumption of prepackaged, corn syrupy foods would create a need for more packaging materials which are often made of plastic or plastic like products. These are not only known to be harmful to the environment in their production but contribute to the always growing problem of excess garbage. It would seem that corn syrup has helped to overrun the landfills, or at the very least overburdened this earth with nutritionally useless foods that are metabolically terrible for our bodies and create a harmful demand for plastics.
It is also concerning that the corn grown and used today in the midwest is not a crop that can survive without human cultivation and chemical intervention. In order to grow the same crop year after a year on the same ground, corn farmers must use different types of ammonia to fertilize and prepare the ground for it’s next population of corn. This is by no means a composting operation. Chemicals used to compensate for the unnaturalness of the event are just that; chemicals, fortified with whatever is needed for a crop not created by the earth but by humanity’s ambition for excess. A farmer growing corn today must use a specific, genetically modified kernel. This seed is programmed in a way to grow extremely close to it’s neighbor plant, providing an abundant crop. To protect this crop from it’s number one enemy it has also been genetically modified to withstand a specific herbicide, it is ‘linked’ to the herbicide so that when the chemical is sprayed down on the plants, the corn will survive the weed apocalypse. Growing a hardy corn crop as farmers know it in the twenty-first century requires these chemicals to be used. Allowing these chemicals to enter the earth’s flow and water systems undoubtedly has a negative effect on the environment.
It shouldn’t go without saying that the science behind cheap food has most likely at some point come from genuinely humanitarian intentions. We as a nation should be able to feed ourselves with the abundance of information and resources we have. However if we aren’t feeding ourselves well, does it matter if we can feed ourselves a lot? Changes in corn agriculture in the last three or four decades seem very complex, but they have not only caused a devastating decline in human health, but the industry has also played a role in the devastating harm done to our precious planet. The way that animals are raised in horrendous circumstances while their waste chokes the atmosphere is blatantly disrespectful to the environment. Thoughtless production and over consumption of soda, candy, fast food and the trash they produce is as shameful as the chemicals used to make corn thrive are potentially dangerous. Corn farming as we know it today has had a harmful effect on our environment.
Aaron Woolf,(Producer), Aaron Woolf,(Director).(2007). King Corn,[Motion picture]. USA: Balcony Releasing.