J500 Media and the Environment


Children of the corn by rarab

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The evil spirit in the corn field has spoken…HE WANTS YOU, TOO, MALACHI. HE WANTS YOU, TOO!

Remember the corny (haha, get it?) 1980s Stephen King horror film, “Children of the Corn?” You know, that flick on TBS you sat through that one Sunday afternoon–when you ate an entire bag of Funyuns and stayed in your pajamas all day instead of writing the paper that was due on Monday…takes place in Nebraska…creepy Man-child preacher guided by the evil spirit in the corn fields; tells him to make the kids kill all of the adults…then, with the grown-ups out of the way, the cornfield spirit unleashes all hell on the little kids themselves.

You know, the one based on actual events.

See, what the Stephen King movie failed to tell viewers is that the Corn Monster survived that episode, relocated to Washington D.C., and took over a powerful lobbying firm that kept a tight grip on both the agricultural and energy industries. And now he wants you, too, MALACHI!

Because corn (in the form of ethanol) is being pushed on us as the answer to all of our oil woes, the demand for–and thus the price of–corn has more than doubled in the last two years, from roughly $2.28/bushel to $5.60/bushel.

Corn, of course, is the most popular feed delivered to cattle, so its price has a direct hand in dairy and meat prices; in the form of high fructose corn syrup, it’s also in practically every commercial food product on the market–from fruit punches to bread.

So, the meteoric rise in corn is great if you’re a corn farmer. Not so great if you’re a single mom with several mouths to feed.

In fact, just yesterday, the Boston Globe had a big story on the surging costs of groceries–fueled (literally) by rising corn and oil prices. Funny how corn, which was supposed to help reduce our dependence on oil, has shared such a similar trajectory with its supposed nemesis. In many ways, corn is the new oil. I guess that makes it “Yellow Gold”… but somehow that doesn’t sound very dramatic…

Those who argue that corn ethanol will reduce our dependence on oil are right to some extent, but they overlook the fact that it takes a great deal of energy and pollution to grow, harvest, refine, and distribute ethanol. So, while it might curb our dependence on foreign oil, it’s not the answer if we’re truly looking for eco-friendly energy sources. Moreover, current automobiles can only stomach blends of ethanol that contain no more than 20 percent corn, so it’s not going to replace oil-refined gasoline overnight–or anytime soon for that matter.

If there’s one good thing to come from all of this, it’s the hope that the super-inflated price of corn will make it less appealing for food manufacturers to pump high fructose corn syrup into practically every single product. Maybe it will mean that cheap junk food will soon become a luxury–a purchase that can’t be made on a daily basis without some pinch to the pocketbook.

Then again, a better solution might be that the strength of corn in the marketplace makes Congress realize that we no longer need to federally subsidize farmers who choose to grow corn for ethanol. It clearly isn’t an environmentally-friendly process, it’s only a supplemental energy source at best, and over-emphasis will only make food more expensive for all of us.

Oh, by the way, remember those Funyuns you were scarfing down? Mostly corn… He wants you, too, Malachi! bwahahahahaha……

–Ranjit

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5 Comments so far
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Corn. Wow. We knew over a year ago how inefficient corn was as a potential fuel source, but it is only now getting a lot of airplay. We knew a year ago that growing fuel would disrupt food systems when folks in Mexico couldn’t afford their tortillas (corn is a food staple). Yet investors kept pouring money into corn-based ethanol, politicians gave tax breaks, and now we find ourselves in a corn-flavored mess.

The price of land is so high, farmers feel pressure to grow cash-crops like corn. The yellow stuff is so ubiquitous, it is not only in our food and in our fuel, it’s being sold as the solution to our plastic problem. Bio-plastics made out of corn starch are compostable (when placed in a compost heap, not a landfill) and make people feel much better about using plastic. Which they should. But it is not the solution.

And corn is giving environmentalists a bad name. A lot of us said this is a lousy solution to our petroleum problem, but a lot of the media didn’t report it in a timely fashion or draw a lot of attention to it. So now all those folks who thought we were crazy treehuggers now think we are crazy, business-backward treehuggers. My schtick used to be “It’s a good first step away from petroleum, but not the solution.”

Children of the corn? Yup, now I am scared.

Simran

Comment by j500

Oil underlines Pollan’s story about agribusiness, but corn is its focus. American cattle fatten on corn. Corn also feeds poultry, pigs and sheep, even farmed fish. But that’s just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. High-fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills. “Tell me what you eat,” said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I will tell you what you are.” We’re corn.

– Washington Post’s Review of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

Aiiiii!!

John K

Comment by genghiskuhn

Corn was shoved down our throats as the wave of grain into the future, but if that’s still inefficient, what are we going to turn to? The articles I link to below say switchgrass is the new (and probably still highly inefficient) answer. I don’t know if any type of plants, algae or fungi are going to help us now. God, we might have to reduce our consumption or something now!

Article in WIRED a few issues ago (long, but worth it): http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/15-10/ff_plant?currentPage=all

TreeHugger’s response (not too happy): http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/09/wired_on_the_pl.php

–Lauren Keith

Comment by Lauren Keith

Thanks, all, for responding. You raise so many great points and I want to follow up on a few of them.

Simran, thanks for mentioning the corn-as-plastics craze. Adam and I got into a deep discussion about this in a previous post. At the time, I linked this piece of information, which I think bears repeating. It’s from a FAQ for a bioplastics cutlery maker:

PLA cutlery is designed to return to the soil through composting. If thrown into the trash it will be collected and end up in a landfill. Landfills are sealed which means little biodegradation occurs below the surface, so what is thrown away may not degrade for a long time. . However, it is still environmentally better than plastic, as eventually the bioplastics will still biodegrade, while petroleum based plastic will stay around for hundred of years.

Also, you raised the issue of corn prices on the Mexican economy. This is a particularly important topic because it points to the bigger picture of damage caused by NAFTA, our free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico:

NAFTA ordered the Mexican farmers to stop growing corn–like you said, a staple to the Mexican diet–and in place Mexicans were forced to import American corn (at a higher price, and subsidized by the U.S. government).

The rise in corn prices, coupled with fewer Mexican farms in operation, led to huge waves of unemployed, poverty-stricken workers seeking out jobs by illegally crossing the U.S. border.

Economists point to a host of demographic, cultural and economic factors fueling the mass migration. But many agree that NAFTA accelerated the decades-long exodus of Mexicans from the countryside by opening the nation’s markets wider to subsidized U.S. agriculture products.

So in some ways, corn can be blamed for our illegal immigration “crisis,” too.

As for why it took the media so long to catch on, that’s simply par for the course. They read the press releases about certain senator so-and-so securing large amounts of funding to pursue ethanol projects, they tout the number of jobs it will create, how it’s helping the Kansas farmer and economy…the journalists eat it all up because they don’t know better…but eventually they find out and eventually it becomes a story. Unfortunately, though, that turnaround needs to come sooner.

John, I can’t begin to tell you how freaked out I felt trying to find a loaf of bread that didn’t have high fructose corn syrup in it. Even the supposedly heahtly (heart-smart/high fiber, etc.) expensive breads were loaded with it. Like Pollan says, avoid foods that make health claims. Still, you’d expect a whole grain bread to be made with real sugar/molasses. It really is amazing how corn overtook the sugar market.

Lauren, I, too, would like to see more attention to switchgrass. I’m sure the main obstacle is that it doesn’t have a lobby powerful enough to sway lawmakers to switch subsidies from corn to switchgrass.

–Ranjit

Comment by rarab

[…] discussed elsewhere on this blog, biofuels are not without their share of problems. The recent biofuels craze has raised concerns […]

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