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King Corn

By: Peter A. Coclanis
May 1, 2018

odern academia does not relish its professors becoming supporters of “Big Agra,” especially those who are higher up on the academic food chain. But the retrograde academics who persist in championing maize (corn to most Americans)—the crop in Big Agra’s botanic arsenal that elicits the food police’s greatest derision and disdain—have an even more difficult needle to thread. I am old, tenured, and “independent” in the sense that I have no relationship with any agribusiness entities. Even though I’ve always loved Mark Twain’s great quote—“You tell me whar someone gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is”—it isn’t the case for me. I support Big Agra and champion corn because, on balance, I appreciate both.

The very fact that corn needs defending would be comical if it weren’t true. This amazingly productive, versatile, and valuable cereal grain is widely vilified by many of today’s cultural elites precisely for its virtues: corn can efficiently, effectively, and profitably be used in many different ways and, thereby, finds its way into many different foods and products. In fact, most of what we eat has been touched by corn. Once converted into sugar and syrup (dextrose, identical chemically to glucose) and corn starch (dextrins in varying forms), corn finds its way not only into our food, but also virtually every product we use. Paint, textiles, nitroglycerin, soap, insecticides, newspapers, cigarettes, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals all contain corn in some form, and that’s just the start. Corn oil and corn starch are not only ubiquitous in the kitchen but are also used for many of the same purposes as petroleum. Corn-based plastic, made of polylactic acid (PLA, derived from fermented corn starch), is a case in point (and and it's far more biodegradable than petroleum-based plastics).

U.S. farmers are by far the world’s largest corn producers: in 2016-2017, they brought in 15,148 million bushels, over 37% of the world’s corn. Because of corn’s high calorie-to-gram ratio and high protein and fat content, it is exceptional animal feed. When fed to animals—whether as maize or as a chief component in wet or dried distillers grain—it speeds up weight gain and increases carcass yield. Its fattening ability has made it the world’s leading feed grain, and, along with soybeans, the most important animal feed in the world. This, despite the fact that in 2016, 29% of total U.S. corn production was used to make ethanol.

And, lest we forget, a small part of the corn crop directly feeds human beings. Indeed, anyone who has tried an ear of sweet corn, whether at a Fourth of July picnic or roasted by a street vendor in Bangkok, knows just how good corn can taste.

Alas, despite corn’s many virtues, when we hear about it today it is likely in the chorus of harangues about the horrors of crop subsidies and farm bills; the cruelty and unhealthiness of corn-based feed lots; the role of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in promoting obesity, diabetes, and perhaps even Trump’s electoral victory; and, of course, the “obscenity” of ethanol production. These are the so-called negative externalities associated with “cheap” corn.

There is, of course, more than a kernel of truth in some of these fulminations, but the charges almost always lack balance and proportionality, and generally fail to distinguish between corn qua crop and corn qua production system, the latter of which the food police abhor. The positive externalities associated with efficient, large-scale corn production (especially when employing GMOs) are often overlooked, and one shouldn’t minimize the importance of “cheap” calories and cheap, corn-based products to the 43 million Americans living beneath the poverty line—12.7% of the population—and millions of others too. Do you think they complain about inexpensive food?

In the international arena, there has been a surprising and little-appreciated agricultural development out of China in recent years: corn has surpassed rice and wheat as that country’s most widely grown cereal. Because of China’s recent push for agricultural diversification into specialty crops, 2017 saw a slight dip in corn acreage, though corn production was still higher than rice or wheat, just as it had been over the 2012-2016 period. While American academics demonize corn, China and many other parts of world are moving to embrace the grain. And it’s not hard to understand why. Economic growth and development leads to increased demand for meat, vegetarian/vegan protestations notwithstanding. Corn has proven its virtues as a terrific animal feed, and, as suggested above, can be employed in a multitude of other ways as well.

The Chinese love pork. No other country has developed a “pork-price index” to reduce volatility in the “pork cycle,” much less developed a strategic pork reserve, and sufficient stocks of corn and soybeans are seen as crucial to ensuring that Chinese hogs are efficiently fed, thereby securing adequate pork supplies. Chinese farmers are planting acres upon acres of corn, and importing soybeans from Brazil and the U.S. The U.S. alone exported over $14 billion worth of soybeans to China in 2016, three years after a Chinese firm, the WH Group (then known as Shuanghui), purchased Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the U.S.’s largest hog processor. China is not just doubling down into large-scale agricultural processing, but is also promoting farm consolidation in an attempt to create its own variant of Big Agra.

So while U.S. elites carp and academics wring their hands, farmers big and small across the world plant row after row of corn, a crop that on balance has greatly benefited the U.S. and increasingly benefits the world as well. Consumers benefit too, especially those focused on the present or near future, who don’t have the luxury of agonizing over the marginal differences corn might make to their waistlines.