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Ethical Gourmet: It is too much of our food production methods

2 July 2009 1,352 views No Comment

Although corn is a food most people associate with New Mexico, our state is not one of the nation’s top producers; yet corn is everywhere in our regional diet. Tortilla chips take the place of bread in the baskets on many of our tables, and pretty much every New Mexican restaurant in town offers some traditional corn-based fare: tamales, posole or one of any number of dishes made using corn tortillas. Where might that corn come from?

With the locus of the American corn crop on my mind, I recently sat down to watch King Corn, the 2007 documentary directed by Aaron Woolf written by and starring Ellis and Ian Cheney. The filmmakers moved to the tiny farming town of Greene, Iowa, where they rented an acre of land and all the necessary supplies to grow corn; they hoped to track where in America — and in our food system — their bushels of corn ended up. Much of what they learned over the course of that year will not be groundbreaking news to anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it’s an entertaining and personal way of presenting the data Pollan dishes out.

What surprised me the most were the mountains of excess corn piling up in Greene. For decades in the early 20th century, the federal government restricted what and how much farmers could grow, but in the 1970s, Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, “revolutionized” agriculture policy in the U.S., encouraging farmers to grow as much of certain crops (like corn) as they could. This surplus makes corn a cheap source of food. It also makes staying in the black tough for farmers, so the government provides subsidies; but that’s another subject.

Ellis and Cheney learn that more than half of their crop — and of the mountains of corn in Greene — will likely end up being used as feed for cattle. Though cows traditionally feed on grass, most cattle farms in America feed their livestock a diet that can, in some instances, consist of as much as 90 percent corn, largely because that grain is a cheap and concentrated source of calories. The problem is that cows aren’t equipped to digest that much corn. It throws off the pH level in their stomachs, creating a condition known as acidosis, which leads to ulcers, a host of other maladies, and even death. Consequently, most cattle feed must be treated with low doses of antibiotics.

About 5 percent of Cheney and Ellis’s crop would be directed to the corn-based sweetener industry, which grew out of the need to “derive the greatest economic benefit” from all that extra corn. That industry’s main commodity, high-fructose corn syrup, is a low-cost sugar substitute that has dominated the sweetener market since the late 1980s. By now, we’ve all heard plenty about HFCS, and its prevalence in our diet. Though we Americans now eat less sugar than we once did, our consumption of sweet stuff in general has increased approximately 30 percent — thanks largely to HFCS.

Ellis and Cheney interview a representative from the Corn Refiners Association, who talks about her industry and its “complex innovative system that makes … foods available to us in such a variety of choices for such low prices.” They visit Butz, who replies, in response to the suggestion that America just might be producing too much food (corn in particular), “That’s the basis of our affluence now — the fact that we spend less on food. It’s America’s best-kept secret. We feed ourselves with approximately 16 or 17 percent of our take-home pay.” Our decisions to raise cattle on food they’re not biologically equipped to digest, to grow more of a certain crop than we need just so we can have cheap food, and to create a whole industry to make money off that surplus without regard to the nutritional and dietary repercussions — it all seems so, well … greedy.

Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t think corn is bad. What does give me the creeps is the ubiquity of industrialized corn and its derivatives in our diet. Therefore, I herewith challenge myself (and anyone else who wants to join me) to a month of the No Corn Diet. This isn’t an original idea — other people have tried it, and there are plenty of people in the U.S. with corn allergies who have to avoid corn whether they like it or not. I want to get an idea, though, of what it’s like to live maize-free in New Mexico for a while. It won’t be easy. A No Corn Diet means, of course, no tamales or posole or chips and salsa or popcorn at the movies. Obviously nothing containing HFCS, but I don’t eat many foods that contain that anyway. No ketchup or barbecue sauce, unless I make it myself. Avid label readers will recognize maltodextrin, sorbic acid, xanthan gum and lecithin, all of which can be — and commonly are — derived from corn. My favorite granola contains cornstarch. Your toothpaste might contain sorbitol, which can be produced from the corn sugar dextrose. And while I realize you don’t actually eat toothpaste (or at least I hope you don’t), it’s interesting to note the unexpected places where corn sneaks into your daily life.

The commitment to being corn-free will encourage me to look further into the source of what I’m eating. Some of my favorite wholesome foods happen to be corn-based. Many eggs, for example, come from hens fed a diet consisting at least partially of corn. I’ll miss one of the quintessential pleasures of summer: sweet, juicy golden kernels munched right off the cob. I’m not sure I’ll change toothpaste or shampoo brands, since this column is really about eating. And I don’t mean to suggest that we should all eliminate corn from our diets or that doing so will cure the problems with our food system. I just want to see what life is like without corn for a little while — but not until after July 4th, of course.

Laurel Gladden is a freelance writer and editor living in Santa Fe. Contact her at the.ethical.epicure@gmail.com.

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