Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our dysfunctional food supply system: Part 1 - Corn

 There are many ways to illustrate how climate change and obesity are inextricably linked societal problems. Today's post provides one such example: our dysfunctional food supply system. Now certainly, this is a vast topic so I am going to focus on two sub-themes for now: 1) our over-reliance on corn in food manufacturing, and 2) factory farming. The former sub-theme I will discuss here and the latter will be dealt with in a forth-coming post.

Now, turning our attention to corn; it seems innocent enough. It's a vegetable, right? Well, paradoxically, corn is used to make many unhealthy foods.  High-fructose corn syrup is perhaps one of the most well known culprits. It is used as a sweetener in the manufacturing of many processed foods. An easily recognized example: soft drinks.  Most foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup are energy-dense and nutrient-poor; a recipe for obesity if not consumed in moderation. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case; for example, our consumption of sweetened beverages, soft drinks being a large contributor, has skyrocketed over the last few decades.

Corn is also used to make corn starch, a food additive that prolongs product shelf-life and maintains the consistency of food at a range of temperatures. This additive is responsible, in large part, for the development and popularity of convenience foods like frozen meals and snack foods. In fact, fewer households eat homemade meals and are relying more heavily on the convenience of  frozen meals. These products however, are often high in saturated fats and sodium, and tend to skimp on the veggies. Snack foods generally have a high calorie count and few or no nutrients. Children especially, are getting more calories from snacks than they did a generation ago; snacks which tend to be processed snack foods rather than wholesome fruits or dairy products. And surprisingly, Canadians seem to be snacking more often than their American counterparts.

And of course, we can't forget corn oil, the fry oil of choice among the majority of U.S. fast food restaurant chains.            

What's also interesting and necessary to factor into this discussion is that much of harvested corn is fed to livestock, which tends to end up on the menu at well-known fast food chains. Corn gives farmers the biggest bang for their buck; fattening animals in a relatively short amount of time.

Our consumption of corn additives and food derived from corn has grown exponentially in the last few decades, largely because companies can get corn cheap; a direct result of heavy government subsidization. For instance, from 1995 - 2009 American corn growers received almost $74 billion in federal subsidies! As the customer, this translates into relatively cheap foods for us to buy; not to mention that these products are  heavily marketed to us.

Growing all this corn, to the detriment of society's waistline, is not a sustainable environmental process. According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO), over 826 million tonnes of corn for human consumption was produced worldwide in 2008, and almost of half of that was farmed just in the U.S. It was the third most harvested crop, behind sugar cane, and pumpkins (?- for fodder that is). If you also factor in corn grown for livestock consumption, an additional 374 million tonnes, that brings it pretty close to the top.


And what's more, growing corn for human consumption is not all that efficient. Worldwide, over 161 million hectares of land was farmed in 2008. This was the second largest land area used by any one crop out of all crops monitored by the FAO (and sugar cane was not the top land-user). Not surprisingly then, corn yield (100g produced per hectare) is fairly low; it was in the bottom 50% of these same FAO-monitored crops.      

Not only does corn take away land that could be used for growing healthier crops, or forests that could act as carbon sinks, it requires a lot of pesticides, fertilizers, machinery and transportation to get it to market - which contributes substantially to global warming. Additionally, the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers pollutes watersheds and kills plants that help in the capture of greenhouse gases. Just to give you an idea: it is estimated that corn and soybean production in the U.S requires about 270 million pounds of pesticides and more than 21 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizer, each year!

Our overuse of corn is no doubt contributing to the obesity epidemic in some way and we are killing our environment to do it! To me, this makes absolutely no sense. There is certainly much we can do to eat better and reduce the carbon foot print of the foods we eat (visit the very last link on this post - Cool Foods Campaign). However, to really make a difference, our food supply system needs to change, along with manufacturers, farmers, and our governments.

References and resources
Corn manufacturing

Rise in the consumption of sweetened beverages

Instant and frozen meals


Studies on determining the importance of corn in fast food manufacture

U.S. corn subsidies

Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations: FAOSTAT  (world agriculture statistics)

Cool Foods Campaign. A project of the Center for Food Safety and the CornerStone Campaign