Saturday, July 16, 2011

What's So Bad About Corn?

Like any good research project, my corn-free month has so far asked many more questions that it has answered. The main one is "What exactly am I boycotting?"

Now, the simple answer is, "Duh.  Corn.  What do you mean what are you boycotting?  Did you have a stroke?"

And, OK, yes, I'm boycotting corn.  Mostly in the form of an additive in processed foods, and as a feed ration for meat animals.  But as I touched on in the first post, it's not actually corn the food that I'm concerned with.  In fact, the corn we eat on the cob and the corn that ends up in the places I'm trying to avoid it are two such different things that I almost don't want to call them by the same name at all.  Here's a list of what sets industrial corn apart:

-It has been strategically bred, and most of the taste and nutritional value have been phased out in favor of qualities that make it easy to grow, harvest, store, and distribute.

- This corn is grown in an environmentally irresponsible way.  The crops aren't rotated, and therefore the soil is robbed of nutrients, making more and more chemical fertilizers necessary, which contributes to pollution, among other things.

-It makes no economic sense.  To keep up with low corn prices, farmers keep planting more, which saturates the market and drives prices down.  In fact, corn costs more to produce than it does to buy, so to keep farmers from going broke, the government pays them.  So the next time you save a few bucks by choosing a corn-fed steak over a grass-fed one, remember the tax money you're paying to subsidize the corn.  There is evidence that, looked at on a large enough scale, foods without corn are more cost-effective than their counterparts with higher sticker prices.

For more specific information about any of that, read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or watch the documentary King Corn.

OK so we know there's big industrial chemical-ridden corn that ends up in french fries, and there's happy, hand-picked, delicious corn corn.  But what about the gray areas? 

I bought a block of cheese this morning at the Union Square Farmer’s Market right here in Somerville. I spoke to the woman selling it, an employee of Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, and she assured me that of course all the cows roam free in the pasture and eat nothing but grass.

But then she added an interesting corollary.  She said that in the winter, when fresh grass is scarce, the cows are given a ration of what she compared to humans taking vitamins.  It accounts for very little of the herd’s overall diet, but it does contain, among other things, corn.


I opted to buy the cheese anyway, but it raised questions.  The first question, I suppose, and one I would have asked had the market not been so busy, was where they got the corn.  Based on what I’ve learned in my research, it’s extremely unlikely that this corn comes from the agro-industrial machine, but where exactly does it come from?  My guess would be that the supplement was bought pre-mixed, either at a feed store, or from a magazine like The Stockman Grass Farmer.  It’s probable that this corn, though grown on a relatively small scale and more sustainably than the other stuff, involved some pesticidal or fungicidal chemicals, or even genetic modification.

So I’m left with the question of whether I did the right thing buying the cheese.  And different people will answer that question differently according to their views on nutrition, treatment of animals, the environment, and the local and global economy.  And I’m sure there’s someone who will take the attitude that It’s "corn-free July." It’s not "mostly-corn-free-except-when-you-don’t-feel-like-it July." 
And in a way I suppose they’re right too.  But you’ve got to admit it makes you think.

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