Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Cornucopia of Corn

Corn--It's every where. It's in our food, in our cars, in our culture, and even at the top of this blog (Go ahead, scroll up and take a look). We are surrounded by corn, and this may pose a serious problem.

Many years ago, I recall watching the Discovery Channel and gaining my first knowledge of corn. Now, I have since forgotten much of what was on that TV program, but I do remember a few key tidbits. The one that always sticks out in my memory is the four types of corn: corn for humans, corn feed for animals, decorative corn, and good ol' popcorn. I thought at the time, "I never realized corn came in so many different varieties!" I'd eaten fresh yellow corn in the summer, seen decorative corn around autumn holidays like Thanksgiving, and munched on popcorn while watching a movie on a cold winter day, yet I had never noticed the differences or made the connections.

It was quite revealing to learn that the fresh corn I ate every summer was genetically different than my buttered popcorn. I was also astonished to learn that much of livestock feed is composed of corn. Aren't cows suppose to eat grass? But hey, they're mammals like me, and ranchers know what they're doing, right?

It turns out that cows are fed mostly soybean and corn diets in the last few months of their lives to increase their growth rate and to aid a "finishing" process to make the meat tender. This practice is found on the hundreds of "factory farms" where most of America can trace its beef to. When these cows' manure is used for crop fertilization, the risk of E. Coli contamination is greater. The spinach debacle of 2006 is a recent example (Weber).

When watching the film, Food, Inc., I laughed in delight at the pure simplicity of one small farmer's solution to the cows' problem. He feds his cows grass. His theory: "Well that's what they're suppose to eat."

Besides taking the easily recognizable forms of corn on cob and popcorn, we see that corn is the main 'ingredient' in our hamburgers and hot dogs. Derivatives of corn are also found in many processed foods. A quick analysis of my meager collegiate cupboard reveals that 17 of the 25 items contain corn derivatives. With ingredients ranging from microwavable popcorn and cornstarch to corn syrup and the notorious high fructose corn syrup, more than half of the products have a corn-based component. Sure most of these are snacks, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same phenomena occurred in the average American kitchen.

In class on Tuesday, I had a mini-epiphany realizing the amazing impact that corn has on society. Tortillas are Mexico's most important food item, and the modernization of tortilla production has caused many changes to Mexican culture (Pilcher). The abandonment of this corn based stable's traditional creation methods induced ripples in the North American societal fabric including international trade agreements, gender paradigm shifts, and immigration policy.

Corn, in addition to it's large role in the food supply, is now in our fuel. Ethanol, made from corn, composes approximately 10% of the gasoline cars use on the road. Marketed as an alternative to foreign fossil fuels, ethanol corn fields are expanding each year as more states establish 'ethanol mandates.'

Two major parts of the American life, eating and driving, have corn as a significant component. What would happen if something drastic plagued our nation's corn fields? The repercussions are imaginably exponential. We need to take actions to prevent such a travesty. Simplifying processes like the "back to basics" cattle rancher and diversification in other food additives are just two ways to a more secure tomorrow.


Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Industrial Tortillas and Folkloric Pepsi: The Nutritional Consequences of Hybrid Cuisines in Mexico. M. L. Caldwell and J. L. Watson. The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating, A Reader. (pp. 235-247). Blackwell Publishing.

Weber, Karl, Ed. Food, Inc. (p.22) Public Affairs


  1. Bruce - I loved your post! I especially enjoyed the part about referring to your cupboard, but really - it seems fairly accurate for any college student. Anyhow - what is your take on the fact that corn can be one of many vegetables that's genetically engineered?

  2. Just wait until we watch King Corn in class - you will start finding corn everywhere!