Corn is an amazing plant. It has managed to insert itself in nearly every facet of modern daily life. It dominates the food pyramid from top to bottom. Many breads contain corn syrup, added gluten, corn starch, etc. all of these ingredients can be derived from corn. Breakfast cereals frequently contain corn syrup, corn flour, corn starch, maltodextrin, and many other corn products.
If you shop at the grocery store, corn is in nearly every product. Even if you don’t recognize it on the label. Many of those esoteric ingredients you find on a label can be derived from corn. Maltodextrin, lecithin, MSG, Artificial flavorings, just to name a few. Did you think citric acid came from oranges? Chances are it came from corn.
Corn feeds nearly every type of livestock. Beef, chickens, pigs, turkey, tilapia, and even salmon, a carnivore, eat corn. Eggs are made of corn. Milk is made of corn. Soda is made with corn syrup. Beer is fermented with glucose, derived from corn. Chicken nuggets are made from chicken that’s made of corn, covered in corn flour, and fried in corn oil. That cheap honey you bought may be more corn than bee.
Even if you’re not buying food, you’re probably still buying corn. Namely corn starch. Many glues are made with corn starch. Corn starch baby powder is becoming more popular with the revelation that talcum powder may cause cancer. Batteries, matches, cleaners, cosmetics, deodorant, aspirin, cough drops, and medicines. These all contain corn starch. Even trash bags may use cornstarch to keep the bags from sticking together.
Corn oil is used to make plastics. It is also used to make fuel to run our cars. Corn ethanol is touted as a green alternative to gasoline. Yet it is made in a process that is far from green. And it may even be harmful to your car’s engine. Not all vehicles are designed to run on ethanol.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, 88% of the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified.1 Unless you are buying an organic product, then chances are the corn it contains in genetically modified.
You may wonder, “Isn’t this a good thing? Isn’t more corn good a good thing?” Well it’s certainly for the economy and for the food companies. They profit off this cheap corn. It may even be a good thing for corn growers. At least the farmers who are big enough to not require a day job to pay the bills.
Processed Corn Products are Dangerous
High Fructose Corn Syrup. Surely you’ve heard of it. It is one of the most prolific of the corn products behind only corn starch. Unlike glucose, fructose has to be metabolized by the liver before it can be used.2 Overconsumption of HFCS can lead to liver damage similar to what you would find in an alcoholic.3
MSG is primarily made from soy or corn, but can be made from many other grains. Is associated with cancer, obesity, and irritable bowel syndrome.4
Citric Acid is produced by the fermentation of crude sugars. Corn usually provides the cheapest source of sugar. During processing, protein left in the citric acid becomes hydrolyzed, producing some processed free glutamic acid (MSG). citric acid may interact with any protein in the food product, freeing up even more glutamic acid.5
Vegetable Oil is made from corn, soy, cottonseed, or canola. They are refined in a highly industrial process. Solvents are used to extract the maximum amount of oil from the grain. Processing may include degumming, bleaching, deodorizing, filtering and removing saturates to make the oils more liquid. All this processing removes nutrients and antioxidants, but not the solvents and pesticides.6
Shortening and Margarine are made by subjecting vegetable oil to a process called partial hydrogenation. The oil is mixed with a nickel catalyst then flooded with hydrogen gas under high temperature and pressure. This is the process that creates trans fatty acids. As you may know, trans fats have been linked to many diseases such as: cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and more.7
Growing Corn doesn’t Pay (much)
Growing corn can’t be all bad. Otherwise there would be no one growing it. It’s pretty obvious that farmers aren’t doing it for the money. Their mission is to help feed the world. There aren’t many corn farmers getting rich off growing corn. The problem is the price, Which farmers have no control over.
The price of corn in Iowa in September 2016 was $2.90 a bushel.8 According to Iowa State University, the average cost to grow a bushel of corn is between $4.00 and $4.75.9 That’s still a deficit of over a dollar per bushel even on the low side. This is where corn subsidies come in. The government sends a check to corn farmers to keep them from going out of business. Despite this extra money, many farmers are still only breaking even. They have to take day jobs to pay the bills.
Corn is grown in giant monocultures. Hybridization and genetic modification have created high yield varieties. High yield does not mean more corn per plant. Instead, it means you can plant the corn closer together to get more plants per acre. Farmers can now squeeze 30,000 plants into one acre.10 Squeezing so many identical plants into each acre can lead to disease and pest problems.
In 1970 and 1971 corn fields were attacked by a fungal disease named “race T”. it caused the southern corn leaf blight which ravaged fields and left withered plants, broken stalks, and rotted or misshapen corn cobs. Race T was able to spread so rapidly due to the uniformity of the corn plants. Every single plant in a field was derived from the same source. Mostly from a single Texas male sterile line. The genetic makeup of this new hybrid corn which was responsible for its rapid growth was also responsible for its vulnerability to disease.11
The Federal Crop Insurance Program offers insurance against such disasters. However, depending on how much a farmer is willing to spend on premiums, the insurance may not cover a total loss.
Everything is Fertilizer
If everything is corn, then by extension, everything is fertilizer. Most of the corn grown in the world is grown using chemical fertilizers. Corn is a very greedy plant, It uses more fertilizer than any other crop grown on earth. And to make matters worse, most farmers over-fertilize their fields as a sort of yield insurance.
Some of this excess ammonia evaporates into the air, acidifying the rain and contributing to global warming when it turns from ammonium nitrate to nitrous oxide. Still more pollutes ground water when it seeps down with rainwater. This is a natural process, what’s not natural is the chemicals.
Most of the extra fertilizer washed off the fields by rain and ends up in the nearest river. Des Moines, Iowa issues “blue baby alerts” each spring. Citizens are warned not to give tap water to children. From there it flows down the Mississippi river to the Gulf of Mexico. The flood of nitrogen stimulates an algae bloom which uses up the oxygen and smothers the fish. This has resulted in a dead zone the size of New Jersey. 10
The commercial chemical fertilizer typically used in corn farming is a type of NPK fertilizer mix. The N stand for nitrogen, the P stands for phosphate, and the K stands for potassium. These minerals require extensive mining and industrial processing to refine.
How Fertilizer is Made
Nitrogen fertilizers are made from ammonia. Ammonia is made by Combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases under immense heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst. The hydrogen is usually supplied by natural gas, the nitrogen is supplied by the air. This process requires a lot of electricity.
Phosphate fertilizer requires mining various phosphate rock. Two processes are used: Wet and Dry. In the wet process, the rock is crushed and treated with sulfuric or nitric acid to produce phosphoric acid. In the dry process, phosphate rock is heated in an electric furnace to produce a very pure phosphoric acid. This method is more expensive due to the high electricity usage.
Potassium consists of one or more types of potash. Potash ores are often located deep below the earth’s surface requiring the use of conventional shaft mining. The ore is then ground up and put through several purification steps to remove salt.
The largest component of NPK fertilizer is nitrogen, and there’s good reason for that. All life on earth depends of nitrogen. Nature uses nitrogen to assemble amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids, etc. the nitrogen used in commercial fertilizer comes from a fossil fuel. We’ve gone from turning sunlight into food, to turning fossil fuel into food.
1 bushel of corn takes up to ⅓ gallon of oil to grow. That’s about 50 gallons an acre. It takes over 1 calorie of fossil fuel energy to grow 1 calorie of corn. It would be much more efficient if we could drink the oil directly.10
It’s cheaper to grow corn this way economically, but not ecologically. But growing the corn is not the only wasteful step in food production. Now we have to process the corn.
Processing Corn is Wasteful
It takes 5 gallons of water to process 1 bushel of corn. This process consumes a lot of energy. 1 calorie of processed food takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce.10 The remaining 9 calories are waste. Luckily for these companies, energy is so cheap that they can afford to waste that much energy and still make a profit.
The number one reason corn syrup is cheaper than sugar is because corn is extremely cheap. Corn is so cheap because it is grown with cheap fertilizer, transported using cheap fuel, and processed using cheap electricity.
One 16 ounce box of cereal provides 1,100,000 calories of food energy, but takes 7,000,000 calories of energy to produce.11 That box of cereal contains about 4 cents worth of grain, but it’s sold for around $4.00 a box.10 How’s that for a profit margin? Who cares how much energy we waste? The money is rolling in.
It’s Time to Change Our Buying Habits
Don’t like all the negative? Here’s how to change your dependence on corn and soy. First, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Does your food heal the land, or pillage it? Does your food require fertilizers mined from mountains and oceans, then transported thousands of miles to the land it grows on? How much energy does it take to produce your food? Is it less than the energy is provides?
The easiest way to change this is to cook more food yourself using whole and raw ingredients. Organic farming requires less fossil fuel energy to grow since they do not use man made chemical fertilizer. It also eliminates much of the pollution inherent in conventional farming. The only major pollution cost is transportation. Buying locally grown food will reduce that even further. So visit your local farmer’s market. Seek out local farms. You’ll be glad you did.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2002 Vol. 76, No. 5, 911-922.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, 2006
- Soil Not Oil, Vandana Shiva, 2015