Popping maize's myths
Corn - or rather its derivatives - are being linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes, along with other health dangers including genetically modified corn.
Dare to start a conversation about bean sprouts or broccoli at a party and watch those around you drift off toward the punchbowl. But launch into a discussion on corn and you could find yourself smack in the middle of a raging debate.
This once-mundane little veggie is starting to inspire major controversy. Corn–or rather, its derivatives–are being linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes as well as to unfair trade practices by the United States.
In addition, they’re inspiring controversy about genetically modified foods and about whether ethanol made from corn really represents a worthwhile piece of the clean energy puzzle.
The story of corn goes back some 7,000 years to southern Mexico, where maize was developed primarily as a food commodity from a wild grass named teosinte. Today, corn is one of the world’s most prevalent crops, grown more widely than either wheat or rice, with the US far and away leading the producer pack, followed by China. Canada is a net importer of the stuff, with its shorter growing season and the crop confined to Ontario and Quebec, with a bit grown in Manitoba.
Most of us imagine corn simply as a treat we enjoy during barbecue season. A cup of canned corn (250 mL) holds approximately 175 calories. It’s a good source of protein and contains vitamin A, several B vitamins (B1 and B5 are most prevalent), iron, and fibre.
Corn is far more pervasive than most of us might imagine. About 54 percent of all US production (more than 11 million bushels in 2005 to 2006) is deployed as a source of feed for dairy cows, chickens, and pigs. Another 19 percent of the US crop is exported; ethanol is produced from 14 percent; and the remaining 12 or so percent goes toward food production for humans and into a surprising number of other inedible products.
What makes corn so versatile and popular is its affordability–and this is where the controversy starts. Corn is cheap, though gradually becoming less so.
US agricultural producers are represented by aggressive lobbies that ensure healthy donations to congressional representatives. Politicians, in turn, scratch the backs of corn producers in the Midwest.
A 2002 farm bill has been providing rich subsidies to farmers, subsidies in the range of $10 billion-plus annually. Corn producers are the biggest recipients of the financial help (receiving 46 percent of the total). It’s noteworthy that the US spends more subsidizing its own farmers than it does on its entire foreign aid budget.
So abundant is the subsidy that US corn farmers qualify for special funds known as LDPs, or loan deficiency payments. If they borrow too much from the bank in any given year to produce a crop they later cannot dispose of through the marketplace, they receive funds from the government in compensation. This makes corn growing a lucrative, low-risk enterprise. Inevitably, through the early 2000s, the crops being produced were so abundant that piles of it sat unsold, with people joking about turning the huge mounds into ski hills. The hunt was on for tarps large enough to cover the heaps from potentially damaging rainfalls. The surplus depressed prices.
Canada requested meetings with the US in January 2007 to discuss trade-distorting practices resulting from agricultural subsidies that go against the spirit of free trade and have had the effect of forcing down Canadian corn prices.
Green Fuel or GMO?
But a new dynamic has been added to the equation as interest grows in using ethanol as a green fuel replacement for petroleum. While a bushel of corn sold for US$2.00 per bushel in 2005/06, in 2006/07 corn was priced at $3.40 per bushel and is expected to sell at $3.60 in 2008. Both the US and Canadian governments have established dates by which a set percentage of automobile fuel must be made up of biofuel. That has goosed the ethanol market, which uses corn, though an energetic, as-yet-unresolved discussion is taking place about whether ethanol can provide consumers with more fuel than it takes to produce.
With the excitement around ethanol, world corn production is up by 8 percent this year and fields once planted with soybeans are now being given over to corn. Crop strains are getting hardier all the time, too, mainly due to development of genetically engineered strains such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn.
Genetic modification aims to make corn more resistant to disease and insect infestation. It can also make the plant hardier to extend its growing season. The downside is that no one really knows the ultimate impact on human health when we start pushing around Mother Nature. The jury remains out.
Some scientists have noted that the larvae of the monarch butterfly sure don’t like the pollen from genetically modified corn. Several European countries have limited importation and use of 18 genetically modified crops and foods.
The biggest fooferaw surrounding corn involves its role as a food ingredient. “Our food is shot through with corn,” writes North Carolina farmer Tom Philpott in an article for Grist, a nonprofit environmental group out of Seattle. “It’s a cheap source of calories and taste.”
In fact, it’s cheaper as a sweetener than ordinary sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) accounts for nearly half the caloric sweeteners added to processed foods. (Think cakes, cookies, breakfast cereals, peanut butter, ice cream, salad dressings, soups, deli meats, jams and jellies, and candies.) It’s the only caloric sweetener for mass market soft drinks.
Cows fed corn produce meat with greater amounts of saturated fat. Recent supermarket surveys by the Corn Refiners Association reveal that corn ingredients appear in almost 4,000 products on store shelves–that’s nearly half the products in an average-sized supermarket.
It’s important to note that HFCS started being used in foods in 1970. Between then and now the number of obese people has soared. According to the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, the prevalence of obesity more than doubled from 1970 to 2000, from 15 percent to 33 percent of the adult population, and from 4.2 percent to 15.3 percent of children. Canadians don’t fare much better. Recent Statistics Canada figures show 24 percent of us are now obese.
The problem with HFCS is that it doesn’t trigger chemical messages telling the brain that the stomach is full, as regular refined sugar does, so people don’t feel their hunger is satisfied and keep right on eating.
In essence, the US government is subsidizing obesity. Meanwhile, defenders of the corn industry are worrying overtime that all the information now emerging with respect to the prevalence and impact of HFCS will make this ingredient the cornerstone of a national public debate similar to the one North Americans engaged in on tobacco.