Maureen Groppe, writing for Gannett News Service, has an article well worth reading entitled “Should Corn Remain King?” It focuses on a documentary by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis called “King Corn.”
Agriculture policy – guaranteed to make your eyes glaze over. But, wait. How about Money, Food, and Health? Suddenly the topic is a little more important to the average person. The film includes retired Purdue Dean of Agriculture and Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. Butz was apparently instrumental in changing farm policy in the 70s in subsidizing corn production rather than paying farmers not to grow in order to keep prices up.
When the filmmakers visit the now 98-year-old former secretary and former Purdue University agriculture dean, Butz still thinks he was right to transform the old subsidy system.
“When I was a youngster on the farm,” he says, “we paid farmers not to produce, one of the stupidest things we ever did.”
Ellis said in an interview that he understood Butz’s mentality and was not trying to make him the villain of the film.
“He graduated from college in the thick of the Depression,” Ellis said. “We graduated from college in the thick of the obesity epidemic.”
It’s perhaps just been in recent years, Ellis said, that Americans can ask whether the costs associated with the nation’s most planted, processed and subsidized crop now outweigh the benefits.
The filmmakers believe those costs include:
# Small, family farmers taken over by large, commercialized operations.
# Pollution caused by the chemical fertilizers.
# Confined feeding operations where livestock, standing shoulder to shoulder, are quickly fattened on cheap corn instead of roaming on ranges, eating grass. Corn-feed beef contains more saturated fat than grass-fed. Also, the cattle are given antibiotics to avoid getting sick on the corn or from the confinement conditions.
# Subsidized unhealthy products like sodas and snack cakes instead of fruits and vegetables.
The Corn Refiners Association responded to the movie by arguing that no single food or ingredient is the sole cause of obesity, which should be blamed on too many calories and too little exercise. The association’s statement on the movie also says obesity and diabetes incidence continue to rise even though per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup is on the decline.
Maybe the Corn Refiners are correct, but their statements have the stink of prior statements by Big Tobacco and global warming deniers which basically boil down to “It’s all too complicated, who’s to say who is to blame? Let’s just keep doing things exactly the way we’ve been doing it — and maybe pass some immunity legislation.”
Ms. Groppe cites this documentary as being akin to Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Supersize Me. All of those, particularly Fast Food Nation, have caught my attention and are works that I would recommend.
I don’t think the basics of the problem are too tough to understand. As a nation we’re less healthy because technology has changed our labor needs so that people are mostly needed to process information and not as necessary for moving stuff around; technology has also changed our towns and cities so that walking makes less sense than riding. Consequently, we don’t use our bodies as much during the day — long way of saying we get less exercise. And, it’s not because we’re lazier than our predecessors. In the meantime, we’re eating food that’s higher in calories and other stuff we don’t need than ever before. Again, there are practical reasons for this that are morally neutral.
As Mr. Butz pointed out, we used to have so much farm land under production that prices for the commodities produced were so low that farmers couldn’t make a living doing it. Now, I suppose if we were really committed to the free market, we would’ve let the market force the farmers who couldn’t turn a profit out of the business. That probably would have been more painful in the short term and more efficient in the long term. But, instead, our lawmakers have chosen – and continue to choose – socialized farming through provision of subsidies in one form or another. Apparently under Mr. Butz’s leadership, we subsidized corn production and had to figure out stuff to do with it. One of the results was increased reliance on high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener which, as it turns out, isn’t especially good for us.
The initial price is cheap, but it doesn’t reflect the cost. We pay more in taxes to subsidize the farmers. We pay more in the form of health care to deal with the consequences of our diet. My Econ 101 (or more accurately – 9 weeks of high school economics) teaches me that the market is less efficient when prices do not reflect costs. When that is the case, buyers are making decisions with incomplete information and the market rewards inefficient behavior.
What do we do? I don’t know. Perhaps we shift subsidies from corn production over to exercise (community design and time and resources for individuals) and healthier foods (subsidies for green vegetables are pretty negligible, I believe).
Updated Ms. Groppe did not allude to the colorful history of Former Dean and Former Secretary of Agriculture Butz’s career.
- Public remark directed at the Pope on the subject of birth control, “He no playa the game, he no maka the rules.”
Racist comment on the subject of blacks, “Butz said that “the only thing the coloreds are looking for in life are tight p – – – – , loose shoes and a warm place to s – – -.”
Convicted on federal tax evasion charges for which he was sentenced to 5 years, fined $10,000, and ordered to pay $61,000 in penalties.
Perhaps not relevant to the discussion at hand, but as the saying goes, credibility is always relevant.