Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Corn

I meant to get ahead in my studies tonight but ended up doing something I found much more interesting even if the rest of you philistines might mock me for it. I ended up watching a documentary featured on the PBS program Independent Lens called King Corn. It followed 2 recent college graduates as they moved to Greene, Iowa and grew an acre of corn in an effort to learn about the corn industry.

It was pretty entertaining for a few reasons. First, for some strange reason, it made me nostalgic for my days working in the corn fields. It was hot, tiring, dirty, monotonous, didn't pay very well and I bitched about it incessantly but that was really half the fun. I worked with a pretty good group of guys who could bond over making inappropriate comments and hating on the rest of the people we worked with who were major tools. It also made me nostalgic for Iowa a little bit as they filmed a brief segment on the campus of Iowa State and also spent quite a bit of time in Charles City, a town I drove through twice. I'm practically famous now.

The guys were actually pretty dorky but that actually worked in some parts when they would just stare at someone or kind of look at each other when something didn't make any sense at all. The farmers they found were all typical farmers and they tended to have a pretty amused look about the whole thing.

Second, it was interesting because I've been reading a little bit about the impact that these monstrous corn crops are having on the world. The price of a bushel of corn when they made this film in 2005 was about a $1.50 and today it's over $6. I wrote about this last year or two years ago but am too lazy to find a link. This is contributing (but not the only factor) to rising food prices worldwide which has led to riots in places like Haiti and Mexico.

In fact, in a lot of ways this film was almost out of date because the ethanol boom hadn't taken hold yet. Most of their film focused on the fact that even though the corn they grew was basically inedible to humans (and they looked like idiots trying to eat it straight off the cob), many people eat an almost exclusively corn-based diet. Cattle are fed corn for about 140 days before they are slaughtered even though they are incapable of surviving on that diet for long periods of time. However, it's cheap and makes the meat taste better so we keep doing it. All of the sugar is sucked out and made into high fructose corn syrup which goes into just about anything processed (which is most foods). They said that 200,000 acres of corn is grown just for the sweetener that goes into the soda consumed in Brooklyn alone. Our corn sugar based diet is one of the leading causes of the diabetes epidemic that is sweeping through this country and likely to get worse. Drinking one pop a day doubles your chances of developing diabetes, by the way.

Anyway, I won't keep quoting these random facts I picked up but these are definitely questions we should be asking. Corn gives us incredibly cheap food here in the America. However, it also costs us a lot healthwise and will get more expensive as we attempt to turn food into fuel. There is certainly a place for biofuels but as a longterm solution there must be better options and corn is really horribly inefficient as far as that goes.

Our industrial farm system is failing rural America. This system is one that grew out of cheap oil and those days are gone forever. In the future we're going to have to go back to smaller farms growing food more locally and that means growing more things that people can actually eat without being sent to a giant processing plant that makes an entire town smell like shit (no offense to Sioux City or Cedar Rapids). Really agriculture won't be alone in this as we're going to have to downsize everything in this country just to be able to afford to live. It's going to be interesting when the ghettos move from the inner cities to cheaply made McMansions in the suburbs as the people with money move back to the urban centers. Sprawling suburban wastelands like greater KC will have a tough time adjusting and places like Las Vegas and Phoenix might just be fucked altogether when the west runs out of water.

With the human population growing exponentially I really don't think that finding new ways to conserve will even come close to keeping up with the coming crises and only wholesale changes in the way we live and, honestly, our current standard of living will allow us to survive. So, yeah, I'm pretty pessimistic about the whole thing. I started to write a rant about the population boom but I think my thoughts on that might be better served with a new post and some facts to back them up. Maybe I'll get to that sometime.

So, in closing, fuck corn and fuck Iowa. This is all your fault.

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