Sunday, October 25, 2009

The sordid history of food politics: Meet King Corn

Source: State Fair of Texas 2008, at Fair Park, Dallas, Texas, Exhibition of corn by-products, Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Attribution required (Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY 3.0)

Corn byproducts...  

Synthetically produced (i.e. in a lab) ethanol was first produced in the early 1800s.  In the 1840s, an ethanol fuel was used as a source of energy for lamps.  In the mid-19th century corn starch came onto the scene.  Model T Fords could be fueled by ethanol as early as 1908.  Throughout prohibition, moonshiners made the most of corn-derived alcohol.  By 1921, we had corn syrup. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the process for Glucose Isomerization was developed, which enabled the creation of High Fructose Corn Syrup (see the post on Glucose Isomerase.)

By the mid-1980s, HFCS was in a large number of products widely available in the U.S.  By the mid-1990s, HFCS had almost completely displaced sugar as the sweetener used in processed foods. (Source)  Are we now seeing the slow reversal? First came Jason's Deli (the first chain to remove HFCS from its menu completely.)  Now Star Bucks' food offerings are HFCS free.  We also have Pepsi Throwback, Jones Soda, etc etc.  And there's some evidence that consumers find this move to cane sugar appealing

Well, that shift away from HFCS won't happen if the Corn Refiners Association has a say!  According to the website, CRA and its predecessors have been representing the U.S. corn refining industry since 1913 (this is the year listed on their website). Predecessors?

Well one group that has a long history and works side by side with CRA is the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which was formed in 1919. In the decades following its creation, AFBF worked tirelessly for good loans, irrigation projects, and benefits for those citizens it represented.  The AFBF supported the creation of U.S. Grain Growers, a group that lasted only two years. Interestingly, the AFBF website relates the frustration farm leaders felt by the inability of the grain farmers to organize. Via the Farm Bureau, AFBF and other linked groups, became a powerful force that would affect American politics indelibly. AFBF, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, has unceasingly worked to influence American agricultural policies across presidencies and throughout the decades.

Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz is a key figure in the emergence of corn as King.  This blog cannot exhaust the long and windy history of American agripolitics, but the bottom line is that Mr. Butz apparently didn't see a problem with over-production.  One of the best sources for a concise overview is permalinked here: "Is corn making us fat? Michael Pollan argues that U.S. farm policy promoting overproduction of corn has made America overweight—and made big food companies very happy," New York Times Ufront, Dec 8 2003

During his presidency, Clinton had some highly publicized struggles with the argri-lobbies. The Corn (Ethanol) Lobby's emphasis on biofuels has resulted in ethanol somewhat politically overshadowing other corn byproducts at times.  Obama, too, seems to be "bent over a corn cob" when it comes to ethanol.

Ethanol and biofuels of course have a sticky sort of residue they leave behind in any debate:  is Ethanol environmentally viable?  Is Ethanol really a worthwhile alternative fuel? Well, many political leaders have found it difficult to come out against Ethanol as a result, at least in part, of groups like AFGF.

I don't pretend to know the answer to the ethanol debate, so in the interest of objectivity, i will cite from a source very upfront about its politics: Mother Jones, Betting the Farm (Nov/Dec 2009 issue): "Don't ever, ever get crosswise with the ag lobby. They will sink you."  This article also put the "Farm Bureau" in a slightly dfferent context than what i found on the AFBF site. "'Farm Bureau' may sound rural and heartlandish, but in reality it's a multibillion-dollar trade association cum insurance company with branches in all 50 states and close ties to agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Novartis, not to mention a few dozen farm-state senators."

Again we come back to the Corn Refiners Association, a group whose techniques and mission are discussed in some detail in earlier blogs on this site.  CRA represents corn refiners' interests writ large, including both HFCS and ethanol.

Some of the big conglomerates, prominently featured on CRA's site as member organizations,  responsible for widespread dissemination of corn-derived products include:
  • Cargill, Incorporated: grain/agricultural commodities; producing livestock feed, pharmaceuticals, and processed foods.
  • Archer Daniels Midland Company: grain-derived processed products, especially beverages, processed foods, livestock feed, cooking oils, and industrial products
Both ADM and Cargill have gained quite a reputation both for their profit margins, as well as their business practices.

We come now full circle to the Corn Refiners Association campaign to promote HFCS:

Is it just me or are processed foods pretty much across the board, by their very composition, not nutritious?  Maybe it depends on how you define nutritious.... The family pictured above certainly looks happy and healthy--no obese, diabetic children there.  and i bet their pantry is just full of HFCS-laden products....  See? HFCS makes good things even better... (well for the conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland anyway...)

There's simply no better way to end this entry than with a photograph of a water tower in Rochester, Minnesota, painted to look like an ear of corn.  (Photo source)  Ah, corn is certainly king in this great land of ours.

Additional sources:

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