Death by Corn

Is the USDA killing us one ear at a time?


United States tax dollars that harm the poor are not only spent on wars; a portion goes toward government-sponsored death-by-corn here in this country. I’m not talking about heirloom corn from South America or the yummy sweet stuff we take home in late summer from North Bay farmers markets. That’s a kind of sacred food, one of the “three sisters” of the garden, and a ritual of summer barbecues. Fresh white or yellow corn is a whole food. Many years ago I first saw the term “killer corn” as light-hearted Val-speak on a roadside vegetable stand near Mill Valley. I did not stop to buy any, but I could almost hear the precise tone of the sales dude saying, “Man, this corn is killer!”

The second time I saw “killer corn” in print, I was reading a news article about Bt-Corn, genetically engineered to produce its own pesticides, a business idea that killed off many a monarch butterfly dusted by its poisoned pollen. Repeat after me: these are our tax dollars at work. Our USDA approved and heavily subsidized Bt-Corn.

But wait, I’m just getting to the nastiest and most literal use of the term “killer corn.” To appreciate it fully, watch King Corn, a home-grown documentary by two young guys, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who found out why generations following the baby boom have a shorter life expectancy (corn); why obesity is epidemic (corn); why diabetes will hit one in three kids born the year my second-grader was born (corn); why farming families are losing farms to agribusiness (corn); why feedlot cows are immobilized, force-fattened and made sick only to be slaughtered just before they die from a high-carbohydrate diet (corn); and why the fat content of feedlot cows is nine times higher than that of grass-fed cows (corn).

They are not talking about the sweet corn we eat, but the unpalatable Frankencorn grown with government subsidies to become a disease-producing feed for cattle and the ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods and sodas. Just think, some of your tax dollars make it more profitable for soda companies to fatten children—mostly poor children.

One of the most memorable scenes in the King Corn documentary is an interview with Earl Butts, the former head of the USDA, who decades ago created the policy of overplanting farmlands. His big idea was that creating cheap food would leave Americans more money with which to buy stuff. Like what, Earl? Insulin? Syringes? Prostheses?

Butts himself had the good fortune of growing up on a family farm and not a ghetto where the cheap food and drink choices in the neighborhood store all contain corn syrup.

I don’t eat cheap food, which means I must have less to spend on stuff. This seems to work out fine for me, despite what the likes of Butts imagine to be core American values. I don’t want more stuff. I want more social justice, beginning with real food for all social classes. I spent a summer week in Iowa once, where corn is king. I was dazzled by the tall corn and terrified by the social conformity in which men worked and women kept house. To the Toto in my mind I whispered, “We’re not in the Bay Area anymore!” The Iowa I experienced 15 years ago was nearly the same Iowa depicted in King Corn . The fact that almost every person who appears in the documentary is a male didn’t surprise me a bit.

But what really does surprise me is a hopeful bit of Midwest news. The women who’ve inherited farms—about 20 percent of Iowa farmland, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor —are beginning to speak up against agribusiness practices on their land, which is largely leased to men. The women landowners want things done differently. They see land in context of long-range stewardship, in complex terms. Hurray for those women! They are being ignored, not only because they are women in the corn belt, but because what they want for the land opposes state and federal policies. So I am speaking out with them: The way we are abusing American farmland, and the sick cows and corn sweeteners we are subsidizing, is an assault on our own people.

We need to stop the USDA’s secret war.


Sonoma County Library