Corn. Anyone who has read Omnivore's dilemma is very well aware that corn has become completely pervasive in our diets. It's in everything from bacon, soda pop and salt. Why should this concern us, ecoyogin/ni's? The answer is such a huge question, so I will generally review some major environmental and health concerns surrounding the issue of corn so that we can make informed decisions about where our food comes from.
The first issue is obviously how the farming and processing of corn affects our environment. Due to early political and food company pressures after the second World War, farmers in North America were encouraged to switch from polycultures (many different crops) to monocultures of corn. Subsidies from the government were set up so that eventually the farmer has no choice but to continue growing a product that costs more to grow than it's worth (please refer to "Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan for more indepth analysis of the US's windy political road to corn-dom).
Pesticides and herbicides were one of the main culprits for this change. With their discovery, farmers and corporations alike were dancing on their tippy toes with the thought of increased yield, increased revenue. Massive monocultures replaced the diverse polycultures and were sprayed, sucked nutrients out of the earth and were sprayed some more. After 40 years of damaging the soil, yields began to decrease; the soil just cannot sustain such massive drains on it's nutrients. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, a third of crops are still lost to pests and weeds... which is on par with crop yields prior to the petroleum based pesticide "revolution".
These just aren't your regular corn though. These corn are "upgraded", "improved" or more realistically; mutants. Genetically Engineered Organisms (GMO) are a huge topic of debate and rightly so. In waltzes Monsanto, the largest seed corporation in the world. Haven't heard of them? They had a close hand with creating aspertame, saccharin and with the help of DOW; Agent Orange (which led to the discovery of many of the pesticides and herbicides it touts today). Monsanto owns anywhere from 70 to 100% of the worlds GMO's, and how convenient that they also produce Roundup, the most commonly used weed killer in Canada, which goes nicely with their Roundup Ready GMO crops. Corn and soy make up a huge part of their revenue, to the point that you can only be sure your corn/soy are not GMO if they are organic (as North America does not have any legislation to label GMO products for the consumer). (Ecoholic, 2006).
Monsanto encourages monocultures, and their seeds are "terminator" seeds and cannot be saved for the following year, assuring their continued income from farmers who have already depleted their soils from Roundup and monoculture production. Fears of cross-contamination between farms have already yielded legal results, with a farmer in Manitoba being SUED (successfully in a manner) by Monsanto for growing plants that were blown in from a neighbouring farm. Monsanto has successfully patented their seeds, making the first step in the ownership of life and food. They've been somewhat quietly lobbying to have legal ownership over whatever product their seeds are found... including animals that eat them. For an interesting documentary, please check out "The World According to Monsanto"; it's broken into ten parts on Youtube.
Of course the most tragic result of GMO plants (and thus ultimately Monsanto's reign) has been the farmer suicides in India. Farmers are encouraged to buy GMO seeds with the promise that they will yield superior results, switch to monocultures and suddenly are required to buy the GMO compatible pesticide/herbicides. Within a short period of time, crop yields and low prices result in huge debts. A suicide disaster is occurring as a result, with farmers no longer being able to support themselves or their families. Please read Vandana Shiva's "Stolen Harvest" for a passionate and indepth look into the human tragedy occuring in India.
Corn has become so cheap due to the monocultures pushed across the world, that it has replaced many other more expensive products out there. This decreases the health of the animals that eat it, the variety of nutrients provided in our diet and our true choice as eaters. Here is a quick rundown of where corn can be found:
Meat: cows, pigs, chickens... they've all been fed corn. This has resulted in sick animals, as their digestive systems have no evolved to process corn (especially cows). Subsequently, these animals are also fed antibiotics and chemicals to keep them "healthy" for us to eat.
Processed foods: all contain High Fructose Corn Syrup. This cheaper version of processed sugar is chemically formulated from the same building blocks... with one important distinction: a higher level of fructose. Fructose is not as readily processed by our bodies and has been linked to increased levels of obesity and diabetes. However, the beverage companies continue to fund research that states otherwise...
Iodized Salt: HFCS has been used to keep salt from clumping.
Take a look in your pantry to see just how many food products contain corn ingredients. Here are a few names corn can mask as: modified and unmodified starch, glucose syrup and maltodextrin, crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, maltose and HFCS, MSG and polyols, caramel colour and xanthum gum. Our bacon that we caved and bought last week had a corn-type ingredient, corn is often used as a cheap preservative.
The implications of corn and soy are much more than just food, they involve human rights, environmental impacts and health. Choosing local and organic, checking into the practices of your local farmers, sending them emails requesting information regarding their use of GMO's and sprays; these changes in how we view food and the system will help support a more sustainable and healthy future.