One Nation Under Corn?
One Nation Under Corn
One of the many freedoms we enjoy in this great country is the freedom to choose what you will eat and when you will eat it. Pull up to your favorite fast food burger restaurant, and little thought goes into the entire process. From the drive there, to the ordering of your food, and the packaging they are contained in. When we think more about it, as Michael Pollan did in his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, there is a whole lot more going on. Pollan dives deep into the heart of our nation’s fascination with the corn crop and its many uses. Corn started out as a crop grown to feed its people. But in this day and age, very little is actually eaten. Corn has become a giant in the food industry, at a low price; thanks in part to the government help. We started this nation as one based in principle and in the pursuit of freedom….and now it seems… corn. But who is the real beneficiary of this corn crop? And just as important…who are the losers?
Corn has been around since recorded history and has played a major role in trade and many complex social societies. Corn’s spread across the globe began after contact between the European colonial powers and indigenous peoples of North and South America. It continued on to Africa during the slave trades and was used to actually pay for them. What’s more, it was a source of power for the African middlemen involved in the slave trade. Fast forward now to the 1940’s and 1950’s as corn and corn based foods became crucial in the agriculture market to sustain military troops during the war. It was after the war that America saw a huge surplus in corn yield partly due to the new hybrid seeds and fertilizers that had recently been manufactured. This surplus had a dramatic effect on the market and the market prices. It was these prices, over the years that caused unpredictable price swings (Wise 2005-9).
As our population has increasingly grown thru the years, our need for more food has increased along with it. The polarity between the two was unbalanced and by using the free market approach, farmers regularly had booms and busts in the market. Making farmers the target of continued and increasing depressed prices in their crop. The government soon stepped in with “The New Deal”, in order to bring supply into line with demand, an approach known as “supply management” using conservation set-asides, a price floor guaranteeing a fair price (like having a minimum wage), and a grain reserve to deal with overproduction. What was not widely known, it appears, is the corporate-world began lobbying for a free market approach again. Beginning in the 1970’s, they used the World Food Crisis and the Russian Wheat Deal to validate their argument to government. Coupling that with the notion of “getting government out of agriculture”. The result of that was that prices collapsed by the late 1990’s and the government had to bail out farmers with millions in emergency subsidy payments. Prices completely collapsed shortly after the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, causing expensive taxpayer bailouts. By 2000, subsidies provided 49% of farmers’ net income. This has helped the corn industry to comprise 95% of all food grain produced in America (USDA 2010).
The government’s well-intended approach to help “prop up” the industry, in fact, created a market dependent on the very subsidies that were created to help it. Between 1995 and 2006, the government paid out $56...