Econ-Atrocity: The Perils of Cheap Corn
By Heidi Garrett-Peltier, CPE Staff Economist
You are what you eat. And according to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that means we’re corn. Corn has now made its way into our diet in the form of fillers, sweeteners, oils, alcohols, pills, and breakfast cereals, not to mention of course the indirect path it takes through animal feed. Why should we care? Because cheap corn has been linked to obesity, and obesity will soon overtake tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death.
U.S. farm policy contributes to the obesity epidemic by subsidizing corn production. According to the Environmental Working Group of the U.S. Congress, corn subsidies in the United States totaled $51.3 billion from 1995-2005. These billions of dollars are collected from taxpayers and used to lower the cost of corn production. Most of these tax-dollars-turned-subsidies are used to support big agri-business: 70% of corn subsidies go to the largest 10% of corn producers. Opponents of income redistribution object to taxing the rich in order to help the poor, but corn subsidies are an instance when the taxes of the masses are largely used to fund the rich.
As a result of subsidies, we have overproduction of corn. When a business can produce something more cheaply, it produces more of it as long as there is a market. If supply grows but there’s not enough demand, producers will receive the signal that they should cut back supply. They don’t want to be stuck with silos full of rotting grain. However, if they can find a way to create a market or expand a market, this will increase demand for their product and they will not have to cut back supply. Corn producers have found almost limitless ways to increase their market: by producing corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrin, maltodextrin, corn starch, dextrose, fructose, xanthum gum, and well, you get the idea. And these are just the ingredients you can read (though not always pronounce) on a nutrition label. There are of course plenty of other corn-derived products that are beyond the scope of this Econ-Atrocity. In fact, over half of corn production is used for animal feed. This is another issue in and of itself, since animals can have problems digesting corn-based feed and they are often given antibiotics in response.
Cheap corn means cheap fillers and sweeteners. Since fillers and sweeteners are the building blocks of mass-produced food, we end up with supermarket shelves and school cafeterias stocked with highly-sweetened, calorie-dense foods. Which, of course, lead to weight gain and ultimately obesity. According to the American Obesity Association, approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million obese, and 9 million severely obese. The prevalence of this disease is growing rapidly. The effects–which include elevated health care costs, higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, depression, and many others–are disproportionately borne by low-income individuals and communities. Lower-income individuals have reduced opportunities to purchase healthy foods, and programs like WIC and Food Stamps prioritize calorie-dense foods. But there are steps we can take to try to reverse the damage.
We can certainly start by changing individual behaviors–paying more attention to food labels and making wiser food consumption choices. But the obesity epidemic is of national concern, and we must therefore move beyond individual choices to collective and legislative action. Write to congress to ask for a change in farm policy (the American Farmland Trust has initiated a campaign for this–see link below); advocate for healthier food choices in your workplace or your town’s school; check out some of the links below to organizations that outline community action programs. To restore our freedom to choose, we need to create an environment in which we can make healthy choices.
To read about the connection between farm policy and obesity:
- “Food Without Thought: How U.S. Farm Policy Contributes to Obesity,” IATP, March 2006.
- Michael Pollan, “The Way We Live Now: The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity“, New York Times Magazine, Oct. 12, 2003.
- Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Penguin Press, 2006.
For information on corn, including subsidies, visit:
For general information on obesity, including community action, visit The American Obesity Association
For suggestions for individual and community action, visit:
- American Farmland Trust’s Farm Policy Campaign and their statement on “Public Health and the 2007 Farm Bill” [pdf]
- Center for Weight and Health
- California Obesity Prevention Initiative
- Healthy Silicon Valley’s “Community Action Plan” [pdf]
© 2007 Center for Popular Economics
Econ-Atrocities and Econ-Utopias are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.