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King Corn

I saw a documentary called King Corn today. It is about two guys from Boston who decide to grow an acre of corn in Iowa to learn more about this strange grain that is seemingly in everything we eat.

Ear of corn inspection

(picture credit)

Tilling and planting one acre of corn (31000 seeds) with a modern tractor takes only about 18 minutes. So, a single farmer can farm many thousands of acres of corn. What used to be a major undertaking, requiring lots of manpower, now can be done with relative ease by just a few hard-working farmers (using lots of machines, chemicals and GMOs).

Once the corn starts growing it is sprayed with liberty weed-killer. This herbicide is non-selective, meaning it kills any and all plants. The corn, however, is genetically modified Liberty-Link corn that can resist the herbicide.

Ammonia fertilizer is used to increase yields. It quadruples the farm's yield and eliminates the need to rotate crops, like the Romans used to do. So, a monoculture of corn can be grown everywhere, year-after-year. However, as farmers are only now discovering, ammonia gradually destroys soil quality.

The harvested corn is used mainly for either animal feed or high-fructose corn syrup production.

Instead of letting cattle eat grass off fields, the fields are used to grow corn. This corn is then fed to the cows in a feed lot. The benefit is that since cows are not allowed to move, they fatten up more quickly. Corn is also a much richer diet than grass, so the cows gain weight even more quickly and less overall space is required. A cow is usually slaughters within 60 - 120 days of entering the feed lot.

Why 120 days? Because after 120 days on a corn diet a cow starts getting really sick. Its digestion system can't handle eating corn for so long. It develops a condition called acidosis, which will quickly kill the animal (humans can also develop acidosis, but usually only as a side effect of certain pharmaceutical drugs). Antibiotics are mixed in with the corn feed to keep the cattle alive for a bit longer, so they gain enough weight for slaughter.

Modern corn cannot be eaten by humans. It is optimized to produce maximum starch. You don't get something for nothing. So, the price of more starch is lower protein in the corn. The result: corn that tastes like chalk, has almost no nutritional value and is perfect for high-fructose corn syrup production.

One in eight people in New York have diabetes (although most don't know it) largely because of eating (and especially drinking) too much high-fructose corn syrup. Drinking one soda per day doubles one's chance of developing diabetes as opposed to someone who only occasionally drinks a soda. And the main ingredient in sugar water is ... high-fructose corn syrup.

Also, a typical McDonald's meal is basically all corn: The burger is made from corn feed cows, half the calories in french-fries come from the corn oil it is fried in, and the drink is, of course, mostly high-fructose corn syrup. We are what we eat, and what we are eating is primarily corn.

Government subsidies rewards the overproduction of cheap corn. Otherwise, it wouldn't be economically viable to grow so much corn. However, largely as a result of those subsidies, in the USA only 16% of people's income is spent on food. That's half the amount that people spent on food a generation ago. People like it when their food is cheap. More money to spend on other, more important things in life, right? The unfortunate side-effect is that low quality food makes people sick. Life expectation is actually going down in the USA. People are dying younger and it's because of what they eat.

The Bhagavad-Gita affirms all this. In it Krishna declares that wretched persons ingest only suffering when they cook for their selfish motives (BG3.13). (alternative translation credit: Garuda das)

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  • Candiddasa dasa 12/05/2008 3:26pm (10 years ago)

    I see your point the it is insulting to many hard-working farmers to imply that modern technology makes farming a thumb-twiddling pastime. I've updated my post and removed that statement.

    GM corn, however, seems like a relatively easy crop to grow. A crop perfectly engineered for maximum yield and minimum labor cost. Especially, since government subsidies favor the huge mega-farms that are rapidly gobbling up small family owned farms.

    I can see that sustainable farming, while certainly a great idea, must be an extremely difficult job. So much work.

    I, for one, have indeed gotten to used to a desk job to willingly consider such a life. Sad, but true.

  • jen 12/05/2008 5:47am (10 years ago)

    Prabhu, I don't think technology has changed so much, I'm not as old as you think. My parents only retired from farming in the last 2-3 years, i also know farmers who are still farming, and i'm quite familiar with modern farming technologies. There is still a lot of labor that cannot be accomplished by machine or chemicals because of the problem of damaging the plants. Some (many) crops can be harvested mechanically, and some cannot. (ask the vegetable pickers in California about that.) Herbicides do not kill 100% of weeds, for example there are issues of imperfect application (wind blowing the wrong way, for instance), and plants that develop resistance to herbicides. And herbicides are extremely expensive, so people tend to put them on only where they are most needed. (unless you're a huge Agri-business) And not all farmers use the genetically modified seed (though in the case of corn, it is now the majority). And even if you are planting GMO seeds, there is still plenty to do-- most farmers have multiple crops-- when you're done planting one, you start planting the next, by the time you finish planting the second, the first needs herbicide application or pesticide application (unless you're farming organically, but then you get back into more of the hand labor again because you're not using pesticides or herbicides) and fertilizer, maybe you need to run a cultivator between the rows to keep the weeds down and aerate the soil. Maybe your crop develops a disease or fungus and you have to apply a fungicide. then your first crop is ready to harvest, then maybe you have some time to prepare the soil for the winter before the next crop is ready to harvest, then prepare that soil... and then there's machinery that constantly needs maintenance or breaks down, maybe you need to store some of the crop for next year so you have to make sure that your storage areas are clean and ready, and if it's too humid when you harvest you need to make sure it goes into a bin with a dryer, and when that grain is dry you take it out and move it to another bin so you can dry more grain...unless you're rich (which would mean you're a huge corporate farm) you do as much of this yourself as you can to keep your costs down. if you're just a couple of guys from boston farming one acre, not needing to worry about what happens after that one crop is done, maybe there's time to twiddle your thumbs because you don't have anything else to worry about, but that's not at all like most farms. one acre is a hobby, or an experiment, not a farm.

    Perhaps my statement about ethanol was an exaggeration, but this is the direction many small farmers are going, because this is how they can keep farming. Here's an article if you want a source: They say that "More than 50% of corn grown in Iowa and South Dakota went to ethanol distilleries in 2006." Granted, that's not all corn, but it's a lot of corn. I'm all in favor of farmers growing actual food for actual people to eat, but in some places this is sadly not profitable, and unfortunately these people want to make a living too (again, i'm not talking about Agri-Giants here either.)

    I have no issues with the idea of people growing food for people to eat, instead of for fuel or for cows to eat when they should be eating grass instead, and i'm certainly in favor of not torturing and killing cows, but i find it troubling that you are presenting ideas from a single film as if they are true of all farms, particularly when you haven't had experience with it yourself. Particularly when you present farming as being so simple that all one has to do is plant seeds and wait. That's what i take issue with.

    personally, i think the return to sustainable farming with oxen and self-sustaining farm communities is a great idea, just as Srila Prabhupada wanted. But it seems few devotees are able to go beyond thinking it's a great idea, myself included. It's not an easy life, and we've gotten too used to our desk jobs and steady income.

  • Sachi Dulal das 12/05/2008 1:19am (10 years ago)

    Hare Krishna Prabhu!

    Insightful usual.

    If you keep up this track record then very soon you will be drafted as the main writer for Gaura Planet...:)

  • Candiddasa dasa 11/05/2008 8:47am (10 years ago)

    Thanks for your comment Jen.

    Do you have any evidence to back up your claim that most of the corn being produced is used to make ethanol? Here is a report of the use of corn in the USA:

    This breaks down as follows (2006/2007):
    - Animal feed: 50%
    - Exports (animals feed overseas): 18.8%
    - Ethanol: 18.8%
    - Sweeteners: 6.7%
    - Other (industrial products): 3.6%
    - Human foods: 1.7%

    Ethanol was up from 14% the previous year. However, that is still hardly the majority of the corn.

    My point about the feeding animals the corn is that the humans that eat the meat from these animals are doubly shooting themselves in the foot. They suffer once because of the negative karmic reaction of being responsible for killing the animals they eat. Then they suffer again because of the negative reaction of eating disease ridden, antibiotic laden, herbicide contaminated, high-fat meat. Good quality meat is not good for one's body+spirit, let alone the stuff that comes from the tortured cows of today's livestock industry.

    It is true, I've never lived on a farm. I'm just going by what the King Corn documentary presented. However, things have changed a lot since you grew up. Modern technology has entered the farm and done away with lots of the work that you might have had to do when you were young. Herbicides kill all weeds (and anything else), tractors pulling various devices take care of all the planting and harvesting and I bet that anything else that needs doing is being done by some machine, too. Of course, not all farms are like that, but the large industrial farms of the American mid-west certainly have no need for manual labor anymore.

    True, that there are many varieties of corn and some of these can even be eaten by humans (imagine that!). However, that is only 1.7% of the total amount of corn grown. Since people all over the world are starving and the price of food is going up so dramatically, I think that it would make a lot of sense if farmers were encouraged to actually grow more food for humans consumption.

  • jen 11/05/2008 5:18am (10 years ago)

    Most of the cheap corn being produced is being used to make ethanol, which is mixed with gasoline. Some people have cited this as the real reason for food shortages-- there is more money to be made producing fuel than food. I'm not a big fan of corn syrup either-- i agree that it's in too many things andd is very bad for humans. And as for feeding corn top cows, that's just cruelty. But so is slaughter, and anyone who is feeding their cows corn is already planning for their slaughter and thus the feeding them corn is the lesser of two great sins.

    And as for farmers "twiddling their thumbs", it's clear you've never lived on an actual farm. On a farm, there is always something to do. I grew up on a farm (we only raised field crops, no animals) and i can tell you that i had very little spare time--there was no thumb twiddling. there was plenty of walking up and down the fields with a hoe and pulling out weeds, however.

    Also, there are different varieties of corn. Farmers plant the type that they can sell-- if they can sell to someone marketing it to grocery stores, they plant varieties that are meant to be eaten. If there is a plant nearby that processes it into corn syrup or ethanol, they plant the type most suited to those purposes. Most farmers these days have contracts with people before they even plant, so they know that what they plant they will be able to sell.

    i do agree with your last statement, however.

  • Sita-pati das 10/05/2008 10:09pm (10 years ago)

    Nice post prabhu. What are you up to these days?

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