Bookmark and Share October 12, 2009 - Dave Mulder

A story about corn

Corn is a remarkable plant species in how it co-exists with humanity. We take care of corn and in return receive big, fat, starchy kernels of life-sustaining fruit. Even better, we can preserve it and turn corn into a commodity crop.

In America, we have too much corn because our government subsidizes its production. Farmers grow corn rather than other harvest vegetables because it puts enough money in their pockets to keep them (barely) going.

Science + corn

To deal with our corn surplus, science has rushed to our aid. By clevely re-arranging the molecules in corn, we can create a number of end products. High fructose corn syrup, a substitute sweetener for slightly-more-expensive sugar, is the most notable. You can also find corn in our fuel (ethanol).

Industrial meat production

We also feed it to farm animals, like cows. That seems like a sensible use until you remember that cows evolved to eat a pasture-based diet.

A cow eating only corn will eventually get sick. Rather than change the cause, industrial farms treat the symptom by throwing antibiotics into their feed. It’s just enough to keep the cow alive until slaughter.

By using cheap, subsidized corn to feed animals, the industrial meat production system is able to keep prices low. This is why Americans eat more meat (on average) than anyone else on the planet, to the tune of 200+ pounds per year. That’s 150% more than the next nation on the list.

Fast food

Cheap meat and clever molecular re-arrangements of corn have also become predominant in fast food. A researcher at the University of Hawaii sampled 500 fast food items from the national players and found that, on a chemical level, most fast food derives from corn. By following unique chemical markers, she determined that A LOT of that corn signal makes its way into your to-go bag.


The symbiotic relationship between humans and corn in the United States can’t last forever, at least not in the same way it does now. To grow that extra corn, farmers purchase high-yield GMO seeds and use petrochemical-based fertilizer and pesticide to support it. After harvest, the corn is shipped around to various feedlots and processing plants, consuming even more oil.

Oil is a scarce resource; there’s only so much of it on the planet. We’re using it to lubricate an unsustainable national food production system largely on the back of a single plant.