Rob Parsons


How King Corn fattens American waistlines and corporate profits

by Rob Parsons

February 14, 2008

Sugar, the "king" of crops, was the foundation of Hawai'i's economy for nearly a century. Sugarcane first came from Southeast Asia and New Guinea and was brought to Hawai'i by Polynesian settlers. Early Hawaiians had several varieties of cane, some surviving into the 1900's.

Other varieties were introduced as sugar processing went from a small operation to a major industry during the 1800's. Sugar planters, mostly foreigners, were very influential. Their effort to protect their investments led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

As the industry grew, plantations controlled thousands of acres. They required a large labor force and workers came from Asia, Europe and the South Pacific. Sugar changed the landscape, economy and culture of the Islands like no other crop.

But sugar has fallen by the wayside, with only two plantations surviving: Gay & Robinson on Kauai and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar on Maui. While tourism has achieved top economic status throughout the islands, another crop has risen steadily over the past decade, now earning nearly $100 million annually.

No, it's not pakalolo, the illicit cash crop of the 70's, before the federally funded Operation Greenharvest forced many marijuana growers indoors.

It's corn. Corn is King across America. Nearly everything Americans eat contains corn. High fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meat and corn-based processed foods are the staples of the modern diet.

Corn is the nation's most-planted, most-processed, most-subsidized crop. More than 80 million acres across the U.S. grow corn, and that number is likely to continue rising, due to the push to convert corn to ethanol.

Nationally, 32 percent of all that corn is genetically modified, and most of that seed corn is produced in Hawai'i. Nearly 5,000 acres of biotech corn were planted in 2006 and 2007 on Maui, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai. Nine million pounds of seed corn were exported in the past year-a five-fold increase since the 1997-1998 growing season-bringing more than $94 million to agri-business giants Monsanto and Pioneer.

High fructose corn syrup has also surpassed sugar as the most-used sweetener in the U.S. According to estimates, an average person consumes more than 73 pounds of high fructose corn syrup every year.

"If you take a McDonald's meal, you don't realize it when you eat it, but you're eating corn," says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. "Beef has been corn-fed. Soda is corn. Even the French fries. Half the calories in the French fries come from the fat they're fried in, which is liable to be either corn oil or soy oil. So when you're at McDonald's, you're eating Iowa food. Everything on your plate is corn."

In 2005, federal subsidies spent $9.4 billion in taxpayer money on corn production. The glut of cheap corn-based foods is a contributing factor to an obesity epidemic the likes of which we haven't seen. In 2004, 17.5 percent of American children were categorized as overweight or obese, up from just four percent in 1971.

Of course, cheap foods cost us in other ways. The medical and health-related expenses associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and other symptoms of nutritionally deficient foods are skyrocketing. Americans are essentially paying twice for their processed foods, fast foods and sodas: cheaply at the grocery checkout or fast food window, but then much more expensively at the doctor's office.

Ideally, corn subsidies could be turned into federal support for other, healthier foods. Making food affordable and profitable for the growers is smart and necessary, but making healthful food viable is even more crucial.

Except for sweet corn, most field corn is bred as an industrial food, with as much starch as possible. The flavor found in the protein has literally been bred out.

Corn is utilized in food processing as high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, sorbitol or other artificially derived compounds. Corn is a staple feed of the cattle industry, yet cattle evolved to eat grass, not grain. A corn-based diet causes trouble for cattle and corn-fed beef contains far more saturated fats than that from cattle raised on grass.

Increasingly, the push to refine biofuels, especially ethanol, is changing the corn economy even more. With the demand for alternative fuels competing with rising petroleum costs, corn prices are higher than they've been in years.

The number of ethanol plants in America is expected to quadruple in the next few years. Despite cautions from scientists and environmentalists that ethanol isn't a silver bullet, recently Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed legislation requiring huge increases in its use and generous subsidies for its production.

For Hawai'i and the U.S., biofuels like ethanol have been seen as a way to loosen Big Oil's grip while reducing toxic emissions. But new studies published last week in the journal Science indicate that biofuel production actually causes more harmful greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels. The studies concluded that nearly all biofuels presently in use cause more emissions, when land-use changes, fertilizers, refining and transportation are taken into account.

Of chief concern is global destruction of natural land that is being converted to cropland-not just for biofuels, but for food plants displaced by more lucrative biofuel crops. Although crops absorb carbon, the amount taken in falls far short of carbon emitted or released when rain forests are burned or cleared and grasslands are plowed under.

Ironically, Mexico-where North American corn originated and has been cultivated for perhaps 10,000 years-has seen the price of corn tortillas triple. "Free trade" rules in place for just over a decade have hurt the poorest people of the continent, while simultaneously benefiting rich and powerful agri-businesses. Two weeks ago, many thousands of poor Mexican farmers marched down Mexico City's fancy Paseo de la Reforma demanding that the government reverse the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The interweaving of political and corporate interests are rampant, and the ever-advancing expansion of the Global Economy is clearly compromising the health of the planet, to say nothing of the average person. In Hawai'i, isolated by millions of square miles of ocean, our choices for local food production and consumption are a vital part of a sustainable future.

Local residents will soon have an opportunity to examine much more about how America farms its biggest crop. Maui will host the documentary film King Corn on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. The film is a benefit for Maui Aloha `Aina, a local non-profit whose vision for Maui agriculture is "agricultural diversity above the ground and biological diversity below the ground, growing nutrient dense foods to sustain a healthy community."

Special guests will be available at the Maui benefit King Corn screening, including Ian Cheney, co-creator and co-star of the film. Also participating in a Q&A session will be Charles Walters, the founder and executive editor of ACRES U.S.A. magazine. For more information, visit www.MauiAlohaAina.org and www.kingcorn.net.