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for people who care about the West

Like it or not, corn is in every meal


For the first time in history, the youngest generation alive today is at risk of a shorter lifespan than their parents. As we begin the 21st century, we have managed to take a great leap backward: We’re living shorter lives.

We know why. It’s because of our poor diets, our alarming proclivity for fast food, and the increasing epidemic of obesity and diabetes in our country. Most of all, it’s because of our addiction to corn. That’s the stomach-turning message of “King Corn,” a polished documentary making the rounds of theaters nationwide and raising the eyebrows of many Americans.

The movie traces the journey of Yale college buddies Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who head to the nation’s heartland to find out where their food comes from. The two purchase one acre of farmland near Greene, Iowa, plant it to corn, harvest it, and then begin a journey of discovery that blows them away. Cheney and Ellis follow their corn to a mega-feedlot in Colorado, where it fattens cattle quickly. But that is just the tip of the silo.

The corn winds up not only in our beef, the two find out, but also in the majority of other foods we consume in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. The syrup is a sweetener found in darn near everything we consume, including applesauce, salad dressing, cookies, chocolate milk, ketchup, granola bars, steak sauce, stewed tomatoes and chewing gum. You name it, it’s probably got corn.

Corn-fed cattle -- and remember, cows were not made to eat corn, but evolved as grazers of grasses -- and high-fructose corn syrup are the biggest culprits in America’s slide into obesity. In 1971, 47.7 percent of Americans were categorized as overweight or obese. By 2004, that percentage had ballooned to 66 percent.

“Hamburger meat is rather fat disguised as meat,” says Loren Cordain, University of Colorado agricultural economist, in “King Corn.” The corn lobby makes the claim that our obesity is the result of choices made by consumers, and it says that corn is the best thing since automobiles and television. The movie, Rob Robertson of the Nebraska Farm Bureau told me, “exaggerates corn and the problems it causes and overlooks all the benefits corn has for our country and our society.”

But it has become increasingly difficult to shrug off the disturbing parallels between our growing portliness and deteriorating health, and the foods that have permeated our diets. “Even our French fries -- half the calories in the French fries come from the fat they’re cooked in, which is liable to be corn oil or soy oil,” says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

“King Corn” finds two other flaws in America’s making of food: The industrialization of agriculture, which has fueled intensive use of farm chemicals and caused pollution to our streams and rivers, and our system of deeply ingrained subsidies. The subsidies granted by Congress reward the over-production of commodity grains and ignore the value of nutritious foods such as vegetables, fruits and lean meats, such as grass-fed beef. In 2005, nearly $10 billion in federal subsidies encouraged farmers to grow a surplus of corn. But only a small fraction of that money went for subsidizing nutritious foods. The recent high prices for corn have also transferred subsidies from corn growers to corn-ethanol producers.

Because we grow corn in ever-increasing amounts in America, the corn lobby -- with the exuberant help of university researchers, Monsanto and the like -- has spent big money over the decades to find alternative uses for the grain. Presto! That spurred the development of high-fructose corn syrup, and, as the two student farmers come to realize, cheap food made more palatable with corn syrup is not necessarily healthy food. It’s refreshing to see “King Corn” stimulating a needed debate about our nation’s farm policy, and it’s perhaps predictable that the corn lobby deems any criticism of its crop and its role in our food system to be anti-farmer and anti-American.

On the contrary, investigation and debate are what make America a truly democratic country. We love to talk, we love to eat, and a lot of us have become really curious about what’s in that corn dog.

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and reports in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].