Corn is bad for you, bad for farmers, but it’s everywhere


According to, 58% of all the corn produced in the U.S. is used as livestock feed, while another 25% is exported. The remaining 17% goes towards things like industry, ethonal, and, you guessed it, food. A very small amount of corn enters your home looking like this.

Haley Deparde, Staff writer

This article was published in the 2011 Spring Southerner News Magazine.

Humans have the privilege to choose from a plethora of different foods. With this privilege comes a huge responsibility. Living in a nation of consumers, it is up to us to pay attention and know what we are putting in our bodies. This challenge may seem simple, but do you really know what you’re eating? Do you really know about corn?
When you hear the word corn, memories of Thanksgiving festivities and summer bar-b-ques probably come to mind. Maybe even a farm family working in the fields of Iowa. The majestic grain known by the name corn may not seem like a big part of your diet. If you believe this, I am sorry to inform you that you are a corn fiend.
Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney were two friends who decided to make a documentary about corn in the United States and called it King Corn. They bought an acre of farm land in Greene, Iowa and planted their own corn to see where it ended up. Ellis and Cheney came up with the idea for this when they learned that our current generation is the first that has a shorter life span expectancy then our parents and it’s because of what we are eating.
A very small percentage of the corn produced in the United States is eaten as is, yet we still end up eating it. Corn is in everything from pop and beef, to plastics and cat food. The amount of corn that we are consuming has risen to an unhealthy level. Grains do have health benefits, however the corn that we are eating isn’t the original grain. It isn’t “true” corn.
The original corn was a crop of Southern Mexico and was much different than the corn we know today. Our modified wonder is known as yellow den corn. It is much larger than the first corn plant and has a distinct yellow color and consists mainly of starch. It also has a lower protein content. With this modified corn plant, farmers were able to make bigger corn. However, bigger is not always better.
Obesity is an enormous problem that is weighing down America. It may seem unlikely, but the biggest contributor to obesity is pop. Yes, good old Dr. Pepper is one doctor aiming to hurt. This is not a tangent. Corn has a lot to do with pop. In the 1970’s the government encouraged farmers to expand. Due to an excess amount of corn and high sugar prices, scientist’s developed High Fructose Corn Syrup. Corn syrup is an alternative sweetener, and even though High Fructose Corn Syrup sponsored ads may tell you it’s just as healthy as sugar, it is much worse.
After taking time to learn more about corn, Ellis and Cheney were disappointed to find out that the majority of their corn ended up in junk food. “Everything we’ve done on our acre since coming to Iowa had been designed to do one thing: grow as many bushels as possible,” says Ellis, “What we hadn’t realized was that what we were growing was essentially an acre of sugar.”
In King Corn they decided to make their own High Fructose Corn Syrup. It was a long, difficult process, and what they produced was very different from what they started with. Ellis and Cheney added sulfuric acid to their scorching pot of corn. From what I knew about chemistry this didn’t sound very healthy, so I thought I would investigate this. “If you drank it you’re in for a world of hurt,” says South chemistry teacher Grace Rousseau. She told me that it is used to control bacteria content. However, Rousseau points out that you get more Sulfuric Acid by breathing the air. Coal contains Sulfur, and when it is heated it reacts with the air and creates Sulfuric Acid, which is how we get acid rain.
Over the years, corn has been genetically modified to be able to grow in close proximity. Author, Journalist and Professor Michael Pollan said, “What you’re growing is an industrialized corn, it has been changed after the last 20, 40, 50 years with one goal in mind, which is to yield.” In order to produce more corn, fields are sprayed with ammonia fertilizer which produces four times more corn than traditional farming. “This plant is sort of an urban creature” said Pollan.
Ammonia isn’t the only chemical being added to corn. Corn has been genetically modified to resist a specific brand of weed killers so that you kill weeds, not seeds. If you are unlucky enough to accidentally buy the pesticide that doesn’t match your seed, your whole crop is  a goner and essentially you are too.
With the mass production of corn, we’re sacrificing more than it may seem. “We aren’t growing quality,” said farmer Don Clikeman when interviewed for King Corn, “We’re growing crap. The poorest quality crap the world has ever seen, we’re growing it today.” Clikeman also added that, “I don’t grow my corn necessarily for food. I’m selling it, that’s the bottom line.”
Many other farmers have the same experience as Clikeman. The US Government controls the farm industry. With our current system, the more corn you grow the more money you get from the Government. To give you a bit more insight into the way this system moves, we’ll take a look at Ellis and Cheney’s great corn adventure.
Just by moving to Iowa and telling the Government that they were going to buy and plant and acre of corn seeds, Ellis and Cheney received $28. They then used a tractor to plant 31,000 kernels in their precious little acre. It took a total of 18 minutes. After spraying their field with ammonia fertilizer, the next step was to wait, and wait. Then wait some more, until harvest time. Then it was off to the grain elevator.
No, this is not the kind of elevator that you use to get to the next floor of a building, it’s corn storage. In Greene, Iowa, the elevator was filled so they had to create another storage system. Then that filled so they made a mountain of corn. Can you say surplus? Ellis and Cheney sold their corn to the elevator, but that’s not where they got their biggest profit. The government payments is where the farmers get their money.
“The irony is that an Iowa farmer is no longer able to feed himself,” says Pollan. The Government rewards overproduction, and these government programs is what keeps the farmers financially stable. It makes the most sense for them to sell. Of the 10,000 pounds of corn that Ellis and Cheney produced, it is estimated that 32% will be turned into ethanol, 490 pounds will become sweeteners and 5,500 pounds will be feed to animals.
That’s right, when you eat your juicy burger you’re consuming corn. The reality is that cows shouldn’t be eating corn. It’s bad for their health, and that means it’s bad for yours too. Corn fed meat has more saturated fat and less omega 3 fatty acids than grass fed cows.
Grass fed beef take longer to reach slaughtering weight. By keeping cows in a confined space without exercise and feeding them masses of protein filled corn, farmers are able to get the cows from the barn to your belly faster. In the 1950’s slaughtering age was about 2-3 years. Now due to a large diet of corn, protein, fat supplements and antibiotics, a cow meets it’s fate at 14-16 months. “The industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal’s allotted span on earth.”
Of the 32 pounds of feed a cow consumes in a single day, ¾ of that is corn. The issue with this is that cows stomachs weren’t made to digest corn. With the masses of corn being devoured, cows develop what acidosis, which is most simply put as: really terrible cow heartburn. “Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt,” describes Pollan, “The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system.” Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
The question is, why would you feed the animal corn if you knew the effects? Other than a quick fattening, the bottom line is that corn is cheap and there’s a lot of it. USDA has a surplus of corn, so they can sell it cheap. “We spend less of our income on food than any other generation in history,” says Ellis.
What comes to mind with the phrase “cheap food” is fast food. The fast food industry is where you’re going to find the most corn. Your burgers come from cows who eat corn, your pop has tons of high fructose corn syrup, and your french fries are cooked in oil containing corn. “The agriculture our grandparents helped build was now growing fast food,” said Ellis.
The booming industry of corn in America is negatively affecting our bodies. Our diet of corn, corn and more corn is creating a problem of obesity and type II diabetes. Some may say that obesity is just because people are lazy and don’t want to exercise, but I believe that it is due to the fact that unhealthy food is made cheap and readily available and this is because of cheap corn. I wonder what individuals from the 1970’s who supported the expansion of farming would have to say about what they created? In order for us to decrease the consumption of corn, the government needs to quit subsidizing it. Maybe they would save some money on their anti-obesity work. The government does need its money.