Sunday, March 30, 2008

A brief introduction to corn


I have in the past year undergone what they refer to as a paradigm shift. Everything has changed. Those of you to whom I've been pontificating about corn know what I'm talking about. I always had a disdain for "organic" food. I still do, what with it's false advertising and it being poorly understood by the masses (genetically engineered food has GENES in it!), it's association with soy (which is not always your friend) and unresearched opinion. But food, even intensively-farmed, party to the industrial food complex food, that is grown by even the USDA's lax organic standards are much, much better for us and the environment. They may be a party to the man, nothing more than a marketing scheme which is the arm of the massive industrial food industry, but if it results in fertilizing the field with compost instead of petroleum, making plants grow their own defenses (which they are fully capable of) instead of relying on caustic chemical pesticides, that is a good thing. But I'm not here to talk to you about organic food. I'm here to talk to you about corn.


Corn is the reason everything related to food in America sucks. Corn is the reason for the death of the small farmer, the obesity epidemic, the glut of processed food, factory farms, unhealthy, tasteless meat, and, in large part, the weeping of the environment. A full fifth of the fossil fuels burned in this country go towards growing and processing our food, the same amount used up by our cars. It's retarded, because food grown on petroleum fertilizers is less nutritious and full of tiny toxins, and food that is then processed is even less nutritious while higher in calories. Oh, and there's shipping the food, which contributes to global warming and all that; self-explanatory. That's another reason industrial organics are bad; they are almost always shipped an average of 1500 miles, negating most of the fossil fuels they saved via their means of production. But back to corn...

Corn was happy for a long time in America. The US government had what they called the Ever-Normal Granary which would buy up corn when there was a production surplus to prevent it from glutting the market and crashing corn prices, and it would sell the corn when there was a shortage so that prices wouldn't skyrocket and everyone would always have corn to eat. Then along came the Nixon administration and the new Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. Take a moment now to mock his name. He thought it wise, as Republicans are want to do, to do away with this system and instead just pay corn farmers subsidies for low corn prices. The subsidies encouraged corn production, which of course led to a drop in corn prices, which led to even more corn production to cover the costs, which led to an even further drop in price. Meanwhile the price at which corn had to fall before the government would pay up kept being readjusted - always to be lower. So corn farmers had to grow more and more corn to chase falling prices, which just made the problem worse. This cycle continues today, resulting in a giant mountain of corn that we could never possible hope to consume. I should point out at this point that we're not talking about sweet corn, the kind we eat. That corn is like pretty much any other vegetable. This corn is what is referred to as number 2 corn, a huge, dry ear that is inedible without being soaked for several hours and then ground. Or passed through a processing laboratory, but more on that later. So, mountain of corn. Why would the government want a giant mountain of corn? Because it is a cheap (now insanely cheap) material with which large corporations can do a number of things. It is used as animal feed because corn became so cheap in the 70's, when all of this began, that it became cheaper to feed to livestock than grass, which is free. It was more cost effective to, for example, cram a bunch of beef onto a tiny feedlot and feed them corn (which makes cows very ill, by the way) than to let them graze on pasture. Thus the factory farm was born, leading to all sorts of well-documented manifestations of animal cruelty.

But that's just one piece of the corn pie. Corn is also used to create a great majority of those bizarre additives on the ingredients list of your food. There's cornstarch and high-fructose corn syrup (which has replaced sugar despite the fact that it's worse for you because corn is so cheap), of course, but then there's xanthan gum, dextrose (aka glucose), fructose, MSG, mono-, di-, and triglycerides, dextrin and maltodextrin, carrageenan, citric acid, natural and artificial flavors (including things like natural raspberry flavor!), and sodium stearoyl lactate, just to name a few. There are entire research universities devoted to finding new ways to use up all this freaking corn. All this processing renders the food very low in nutrients and very high in calories.

Then there's ethanol, which is a complete crock. It's heralded as a fuel alternative, but is costs more fossil fuels just to MAKE ethanol than would be used if you just burned them in your car themselves. And it pollutes the atmosphere just as bad as gasoline. It's nothing but a scam to use up more corn.

I could go on and on, but just read The Omnivore's Delimma by Michael Pollan. That's where most of this information comes from. Fascinating book. Actually, read anything by Michael Pollan. He's fantastic. He's my hetero mind-crush.

There comes a time in every thinking person's life when they realize the great inequities of the system in which we function. The response is either a frustrated but begrudging admittance that it's not going to change and functioning in it anyway, or a fundamental shift in the way we live our lives. The first is much easier and so that's what most people do. Being an ethical consumer takes a lot of fucking work. But I can only take this latter path at this point, at least in regards to food. Food is what I am made of, and if you can't be worried about your own health, what can you be worried about?

The worst problem by my estimation is corn-fed beef. Corn-fed or grain-fed beef is often advertised as such, as if it were a good thing. Corn makes cows violently ill. It often causes their first stomachs to swell up so much that it explodes or it crushed the animal's lungs and suffocates it. It causes abscesses of the liver. The only reason the cows don't all die is that they are only fed corn 150 days or so before slaughter at about 16 to 18 months of age. Any longer than than and they'd start dropping like flies. Corn-fed beef, in addition to being sickly and thus full of antibiotics (breeding antibiotic-resistant superbacteria) are also full of fat. Corn gives beef that "well-marbled" effect which the USDA prizes in order to encourage the consumption of corn, despite the fact that it tastes worse and is INFINITELY worse for you. Corn is the reason the feedlot is possible, with all the overcrowding and the living in lakes of their own shit, which, by the way, does find it's way into our meat in the slaughterhouse, which is why so much meat is irradiated before sale (and isn't labeled as such). You are eating cow shit. Knowing all of this, and having tasted before the taste superiority of meat that lived the way it was supposed to in the form of wild venison (farmed venison is just as bad), i cannot in good conscience continue to support this industry of torturing animals and selling me an inferior, unhealthy, disgusting product. There is a reason so many gourmet chefs buy their ingredients locally from small farms: you can taste the difference in quality. It is a short step from there to reject this entire fucked-up system ruled by corn and the USDA.

Before the USDA got involved, organic used to mean something very different than it does today. It meant sustainably grown, polycultural meat and produce, grown responsibly and ethically in such a way as to minimize environmental impact and maximize the healthiness of the food. That is where I chose to return, by growing for myself what I can and buying from organic local farmers what I can't. We will no longer buy strawberries out of season, for they have been either grown with all sorts of nasty chemicals or flown in from Argentina. I will not buy meat if I don't know how it was raised. I will do away with ALL processed food. Everything organic, everything grass-fed. And you should, too. Yeah, it's a lot to do, yeah, it costs a little more, and yeah, it's beyond inconvenient. But the food will taste much better, be much healthier, and, much more importantly, you will not be complicit in this unsustainable system. You can eat with a conscience.

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