My Big Beef with King Corn: Kernels, CAFOs and Coercion

by redpillpapa · 0 comments

in Book+DVD Reviews,Character,Education,Environment,Health+Wellness,Nutrition+Food,Politics+Policy

The Red Pill Parents have been on a documentary kick lately and we are grateful that there are so many documentarians who are now shining a light on the food that most Americans eat, the means of production of these agricultural products, and the resulting effects on us and our environment.  As Red Pill Parents, we want to collect the most relevant information that can inform the decisions that we make as parents as to how we feed ourselves and our families, and we can’t do so without expressing our utter disbelief and outrage at a system which allows us to be manipulated by companies who place their profit motive above providing the most safe and healthful food products — and which exploits ecosystems across the US in the process.  Food, Inc. (covered last week) and King Corn are two must-sees for Red Pill Parents who aren’t afraid to accept the painful, infuriating truths about our country’s food production.

What we are learning is that the American farm, as an idealized part of the American fabric, is no longer what many of us have have pictured in our minds.  The family farm of the 1800′s and 1900′s has mostly been replaced by mega agribusinesses (such as Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Cargill, ConAgra, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer CropScience) who directly or indirectly control tens of millions of acres of farm land and grow a very limited number of crops, mainly corn, soybeans and wheat (around 80 million acres of land are planted for corn, with the majority of the crop grown in the Heartland region, according to the USDA).  These staples are no longer the end products, ending up in close-to-original form on our tables, but rather have become raw materials which are synthetically transformed into other ingredients which serve as the building blocks for most of the processed food that ends up on our grocery store shelves, in our school lunches and in fast food meals (by-products from these crops are also the building block for non-food products such as cardboard, building materials and biofuels).

In the case of the documentary King Corn, two recent college graduates, in an effort to understand modern farming techniques and the business behind growing and selling corn, lease an acre of land from a farmer in Iowa — the largest corn growing state in the US — and trace corn’s path from seed to finished product.

One of the most poignant points that King Corn makes is that most farmers (we’ll use this term to represent independent farmers as well as agribusinesses) grow a variety of corn that, in its raw form, serves no purpose to humans (sweet corn is the variety of corn that humans eat on the cob).  The kernels of the most common varieties are hard, have almost no taste, and most of the seed from which it comes has been genetically modified by Monsanto or companies owned by Monsanto to grow in more dense fields, and resist pests and herbicides, which are sprayed on fields to kill weeds.  Monsanto’s most popular brand of seed is called Round Up Ready as it is naturally resistant to Round Up, the herbicide sprayed on crops to kill weeds (which is, coincidentally, a Monsanto product).  Also, water runoff from corn fields picks up fertilizer, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals and deposits them in lakes, rivers and underground water supplies, which can render once potable water unsafe for drinking (Red Pill Parents will address this and other water-related issues in a separate series of posts).

Early on, King Corn addresses the first by-product of this corn, high fructose corn syrup, which has replaced solid table sugar in most processed foods and has been accused of being a key factor in the obesity epidemic that is afflicting our population.  The viewer is taken into a lab where we learn that high fructose corn syrup is a complex, laboratory-made derivative that was discovered in 1957.  HFCS started to become a main ingredient in foods produced in the US in 1975. Because corn is one of the USA’s most abundant cash crops (the US produced 42% of the world’s corn in 2007 – 13.1 billion bushels) corn producers have successfully lobbied to put in place tariffs that make imported table sugar almost twice as expensive in the US as in other countries.  As a result, HFCS has become a much cheaper substitute for sucrose, or table sugar, produced from sugar cane and beets.  HFCS now provides most of the empty calories found in processed foods from soda to bread (if you do not normally read ingredients, you may be shocked to learn that HFCS is listed as one of the top 3 or 4 ingredients in most processed foods).  Conversely, corn growers receive approximately $40 billion in government subsidies, which make the price of US-grown corn artificially low.  According to Food, Inc., this subsidy means that US-grown corn is cheaper to buy in Mexico than Mexican-grown corn, a situation which has put 1.3 million Mexican farm workers out of work and sent them running for greener pastures: guess where?   In Arizona and elsewhere in the US.  Isn’t it interesting, that with all the fuss over illegal immigration, that this particular cause of the “problem” is never addressed?  This situation presents a great opportunity for us to consider voting with our pocketbooks at the grocery store to purchase non-industrially produced corn, does it not?

Much of this cheap and abundant US-produced corn is also used to feed livestock in the CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) that are the first step in the industrial production of beef.  Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) are agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations.  AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area.  Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on range land.  According to the USDA, corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the US, accounting for more than 90% of total value and production of feed grains. What King Corn, Food Inc. and other films and books on the same subject highlight is that cows naturally graze on fields of grass and feeding them corn and soybeans, mainly to quickly fatten them and produce a higher beef yield per animal, is an inhumane and unsafe practice.  Cows finished in CAFOs eating corn and soybeans have a higher level of acid in their stomachs and more lethal strains and more dense concentrations of the E-coli bacteria.  Although E-coli naturally exist in the cow’s digestive system, due to modern production techniques these bacteria are becoming resistant to higher levels of acid and survive beyond the cow’s digestive system, entering the beef production lines and infecting humans that consume this beef.  Beef farmers, in an effort to kill this bacteria and heal ulcers caused by higher acidity in the cow’s stomachs, regularly give beef cows antibiotics in an effort to manage the levels of bacteria.  As a result, the E-coli are growing immune to these antibiotics (which we end up indirectly eating), creating more lethal strains which ultimately end up sickening humans when this bacteria ends up in the food chain.  In Food Inc., free-range, organic farmer Joel Salatin (who has become a hero to us since watching the film) says that five days of grass feeding a beef cow will shed 80-90% of the E-coli in a cow’s gut.  Already, we see that the ideal choice is purchasing grass-fed beef produced by smaller, independent beef farmers.

However, I recently had a conversation with a beef farmer at my local farmer’s market, where I learned that while cows should graze in fields of grass for the first 7-9 months of their lives, they can be safely finished with either corn or grass, especially when the corn is supplemented by hay.  Corn finishing provides a higher density energy source and thus helps the farmer grow the cow to an acceptable slaughter weight faster.  Grass finishing takes longer and results in a higher price per pound at market.  The farmer that I spoke to charges an average of $1 more per pound of grass-finished beef.  She noted that the demand for grass-finished beef has become so high, that she is considering lowering the price of her corn-finished beef so that customers will continue to buy this variety of meat.  Either way, her farm does not employ CAFO techniques and therefore, there is not a problem with E-coli contamination of her product.  So corn-finished beef can also be a good choice, provided it comes from a natural or organic farm, and not from a CAFO.

Corn is also a key ingredient in non-food products such as plastics, packaging materials, toothpaste, batteries, cosmetics, paper, medicines, etc.  While King Corn did not go into this much, corn is used to produce fuel alcohol also known as ethanol.  Fuel alcohol is promoted as making gasoline burn cleaner and reducing air pollution without polluting the water.  It is also promoted as a renewable energy source, where oil in the ground in non-renewable, as it exists in finite supply.  However, we learned that when corn and other agricultural products are viewed as viable fuel alternatives, the price of corn jumps, resulting in the higher cost of food.  In the last stages of the housing boom, when ethanol was being heavily touted as a solution to cope with the rising cost of gas, I remember my local diner raised all of its prices due to the increase of food prices. While this seems defeatest, perhaps higher corn prices would dissuade people from eating industrially produced corn and corn by-products, which we now see pose many health risks.  And the bottom line with ethanol, is that while it is not itself a petroleum product, it takes more than a gallon of petroleum to produce it: to run the machinery that gathers the corn, processes the corn and transports the final product.  So what are we really saving?

Interestingly, corn is one of our country’s most heavily subsidized crops and ironically, the subsidies in place greatly favor large industrial producers over small independent ones.  The politics and legalities of growing corn goes far deeper than purchasing seed and planting it.  Companies like Monsanto have patented their genetically modified seed.  What this means is that if a farmer has not signed a contract with this industrial food giant, they are not allowed to plant Monsanto’s seed.  This becomes tricky when nature causes a field planted with Monsanto’s seed to pollinate the fields of an unlicensed farmer.  Often times farmers who refuse to license Monsanto’s seed and are found to have its varieties growing on their land are sued out of business.  This get-in-line-or-get-out-of-town mentality gives Monsanto a virtual stronghold on the sale of all corn seed.  With their genetic patents, which make it easier and more cost efficient for farmers to grow corn, it is virtually impossible to grow corn and avoid using Monsanto seed.  Included in the terms of Monsanto’s licensing agreement, farmers are not able to save seed and replant it the following year (a common practice in normal farming).  Instead, they must purchase new seed annually.  Some of the traits which Monsanto has patented include the Roundup Ready gene mentioned earlier, which allows farmers to spray their fields against weeds with the popular weed killer Roundup, without affecting the corn plant, resulting in a huge savings in labor costs.  Monsanto then cites these cost-saving benefits of its seed in justifying higher seed prices.  It is interesting to note that the price that Monsanto charges for corn seed has increased 135% since 2001, while the cost of living has only increased 20% in this period.  Monsanto justifies this increased cost by noting that the cost of production has decreased as a result of using its genetically modified seed.

Monsanto employs a small army of ‘seed police’ and independent private investigators who go into farming communities to find farmers who may be using its seed without signing its licensing agreement.  The problem is that many farmers inadvertently end up growing Monsanto’s varieties of corn unknowingly, either because their field became pollinated by a neighbor’s GM crop, or perhaps because they tried Monsanto seed one year and couldn’t rid their land of it the next.  It is also common for farmers to share seed.  An unknowing recipient of Monsanto’s seed is in violation of Monsanto’s rules.  Monsanto’s practice of using fear and encouraging informants to turn in illegal growers, persuades many farmers to give in and use their seed.  The company also uses litigation against farmers illegally found to have their seeds in their crop — whether it was intentional or not.  As we know, he with the most money often prevails in legal proceedings, and it is often the case that a small, unknowing farmer is sued out of business by Monsanto.  Knowing this, if you were a farmer, would you take the risk of not using Monsanto’s seed, or simply go along with the program?

According to website, in an article entitled “Goliath and David: Monsanto’s Legal Battles Against Farmers,” the point is made that “it looks as though there’s no turning back from a future in which Monsanto and a handful of other companies own the genetic building blocks of the world’s food supply.”  Farmer Troy Roush, who was sued by Monsanto for saving seed, is quoted as saying, “I’d put the genie back in the bottle in a heartbeat.”

In a rare victory for the ‘little guy’ the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), announced July 24, 2007 that the United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected four key Monsanto patents related to genetically modified crops “because the agricultural giant is using them to harass, intimidate, sue – and in some cases literally bankrupt – American farmers.”  The article goes on to say, “One study of the matter found that, ‘Monsanto has used heavy-handed investigations and ruthless prosecutions that have fundamentally changed the way many American farmers farm.  The result has been nothing less than an assault on the foundations of farming practices and traditions that have endured for centuries in this country and millennia around the world, including one of the oldest, the right to save and replant crop seed’ … ‘Hopefully, this victory is the beginning of the end of the harm being caused to the public by Monsanto’s aggressive assertion of these patents, which threatens family farms and a diverse American food supply’,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s Executive Director.  Monsanto plans to ask for a reconsideration.

King Corn also documents one farmer’s legal battle with Monsanto, which is truly heartbreaking, and highlights this David vs. Goliath scenario playing out across the heartland everyday.

A lot of information?  Yes.  Too much information?  Probably not.  After all, as Red Pill Parents we deserve to know where the food that we eat is coming from and what the politics and business behind its production are.  So what is a Red Pill Parent to do?  First, we must consider that if we are not actively checking the ingredients on the processed foods that we purchase, there is a good chance that this genetically modified corn is being consumed by our families.  As GM crops have only been grown in the US since about 1990, we do not fully know the long-term effects on our bodies and the development of our childrens’ bodies, of eating such products.  Also, we must note that there is not satisfactory scientific evidence that concludes that eating GM crops is equivalent to eating non-GM crops.  Second, by purchasing foods that include GM corn, we are supporting this system which, in the long term, is polluting our drinking water and deteriorating the quality of the soil in which these crops are grown.  It seems prudent to seek out organically produced corn and corn products, which may in the short term cost more, but in the long term are known to be safe for human consumption, and may save us higher costs in health care down the road.  With the rise in food allergies, digestive issues such as food intolerances and ulcers, we may want to err on the side of caution and make the conscious decision to consume food that is known to be safe.  Just think of all the products that we regularly consume that include this GM corn and by-products: breads, cereals, sodas, snack foods, meats, sauces, salad dressings — almost all commercially produced and processed food.

In a future posting, we will address some of the information available on GM food and try to draw conclusions as to what we can do to best nourish our families in a system that clearly does not have the best interest of the consumer at its core.  But for now, do yourself a favor and watch King Corn.  In its mere 88 minutes, your understanding of farming in America will be forever changed — and hopefully so will the way you eat and buy food.

– Red Pill Papa


“Rapid Rise in Seed Prices Draws U.S. Scrutiny”

“Goliath and David: Monsanto’s Legal Battles against Farmers”

Farm Groups Call on Government to Bust Up “Big Ag”

Wikipedia: “High-fructose corn syrup”

“Genetically Modified Foods: Are They a Risk to Human/Animal Health?”

Grinning Planet: Movie review of King Corn


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