by Stephen Meno
The recent droughts and subsequent rise in corn prices should make us take a good, hard look at American agriculture. Through the Farm Bill and the Energy Policy Act, the government subsidizes corn production so it can be grown below cost. Unfortunately, cheap corn isn’t paying off. We’re inundated with facts about how this abundance of corn goes to junk food and industrialized meat production, resulting in skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. And if this cheap corn is bad for our bodies, it sure can’t be great our environment.
By its nature, corn requires lots of nutrients to grow and is very draining on the soil. Instead of using natural fertilizers or letting fields go fallow, toxic fertilizers are used, which pollute water systems. And on top of that, pesticides are sprayed on these plants, again contaminating water supplies, and humans, especially the workers who harvest the plant. Undoubtedly, these chemicals are linked to the rising cancer rates in the country.
As Michael Pollan points out in his book In Defense of Food, Americans spend 9.7% of our income on food and 16% on health care (one of the highest in the world). But 50 years ago, we spent 17.5% on food and only 5.2% on health care. Makes the few extra dollars you spend on organic food worth it, doesn’t it?
Over the past 100 years, there has been a 75% reduction in agricultural biodiversity. Fewer varieties of plants are being grown, resulting in many catastrophes. Thirty percent of the US land base is dedicated to growing corn with the same genetic code patented by Monsanto Corporation. Because of this homogeneity, we almost lost our entire corn harvest in 1978. This corn variant had no immunity to a fungus outbreak. And now with current drought conditions, we are dealing with a similar crisis—a staple plant we rely on that just isn’t holding up.
So in a world that is undergoing a rapid change in climate, putting all this money into one type of corn that doesn’t adapt well seems like a really bad idea. A necessary solution is to expand the types of corn that we grow, paying special attention to one kind called flint corn. Flint corn is a hybrid that was first grown by the Native tribes in the Northeast and northern Midwest because it is drought and frost resistant. And because there is survival and strength in diversity, we need to start subsidizing other crops beside corn and soybeans. If we did, produce like broccoli and squash would be more affordable, curbing obesity rates.
Changes in government policy, as well as in our mindsets, are necessary to ensure that we’ll have enough food for everyone as the planet changes. We have to form our lives around our local environments, realize what food is meant to grow in these areas. And we have to remember that food is our culture, and must be treasured. Forget apple pie, nothing is more American than corn. And to make sure we can still nibble on it at our summer barbecues, we need to grow more varieties of it and other plants, and make sure they’re organic.
Food is not just something that we chew, but something that sustains us. Considering that we put it in our body multiple times a day, it’s easy to see how it’s our most intimate and necessary relationship. So let’s not take it lightly.
To learn more about this topic, check out this short presentation here by Winona LaDuke, an internationally known Native American activist who is the Director of Honor the Earth organization from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Her work with the reservation has led to the repurchase of native lands for preservation and reforestation.