The killer kernel

Photo by Eamon Mac Mahon

Take a look next time you are at the supermarket. More than a quarter of everything on the shelves has corn in it. Most of the eggs, meat and poultry, and even the “natural salmon” are made of corn. The chicken nugget is corn flour piled on corn-fed chicken fried in corn oil. Corn is in your coffee whitener, Cheez Whiz, frozen yogurt, canned fruit, ketchup, pop, and vitamins. Those ingredients too hard to pronounce—maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, dextrose, lactic acid, msg, polyols, caramel colour, xanthan gum—are all made from corn.

How does our corn-dominated food system relate to human health? Wayne Roberts, one of the holistic food movement’s original iron horses and the author of The No- Nonsense Guide to World Food, doesn’t mince words with his answer. “We have a health care system that doesn’t care about food, and a food system that doesn’t care about health.” To his mind corn is the most obvious example. It’s “the most subsidized crop in the world, and it has only negative health consequences.” The Environmental Working Group pegs U.S. corn subsidies from 1995 to 2009 at us $73 billion, or about $5 billion per year.

The trouble with corn, or at least the industrial feedstock variety grown in North America, Roberts explains, is “it’s an extremely low-nutrient food, just an energy provider, which is used in an agricultural system that does not value human, animal, or environmental health as one of its outcomes.”

Forty per cent of U.S.-produced corn goes to fatten cows, pigs, and other livestock for meat, milk and eggs. Ethanol takes about a third. And, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) gulps up about three per cent, with exports and “other” making up the remainder.

Citing the corn-fed, fatty meat, and HFCS-based soda-pop obesity epidemic, Stephen Macko asks, “We are overwhelmingly corn, but what price have we paid?”

As a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at University of Virginia, Macko knew the two trillion-plus corn plants grown each year in Iowa—300 for every man, woman and child on the planet—had to be going somewhere. Macko estimates after water, the number one component in humans comes from corn. We’re essentially walking corn chips.

“Hair functions as a nuanced physical record of diet over time, much like a tape recording,” he explains. His collection includes locks from George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe, Diane Sawyer, and his favourite, Oetzi the Iceman. Through a complex process involving burning the hair to measure the isotopes released, his testing finds on average, about half the carbon in an average North American is derived from corn.

This is not surprising. In many ways corn is the perfect industrial crop. It is an abundant source of cheap interchangeable calories, and with a large amount of fertilizer, can be grown rapidly and predictably often on a one-person, one-machine farm enterprise. But Roberts is concerned that while corn may be good for the industrial food system, it is dysfunctional to human and planetary health. Its highly mechanized nature is hollowing out rural communities, its empty calories in our meat and pop is blowing up our waistlines, its fertilizer and pesticides are polluting our drinking water, and the industrialized food system it sustains—where the average molecule of food eaten in North America has travelled 4,000 kilometres—is polluting our air.

Are we eating too much corn? “There’s a saying ‘a tonne of anything looks ugly,’” starts Dr. David Jenkins. As the Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism at University of Toronto and Director of the Clinical and Risk Factor Modification Centre at St Michael’s Hospital, he is one of Canada’s most respected nutritionists and has also worked with Loblaws to develop its Blue Menu line of healthier food products.

When corn feeds millions of cattle a day, which is inefficient because of its low nutritional value, or when a lot of corn sweeteners are added to make food interesting, “then I think you’re catering to a population that is not only growing vastly in numbers, but vastly in size. I’d say the bigger issue behind the corn story is the growth of the human population and the growth of the human appetite.”

Jenkins’ chief concern is the big picture, a planet showing signs of collapse under the weight of a burgeoning population of nine billion consumers. For him, corn is not the problem. Rather, it is one of the symptoms of the age-old Malthusian problem—too many people consuming too much. He knows his message is likely to fall on deaf ears, and he doesn’t try to mask the sense of urgency or frustration.

Our bulging corn-filled bellies are busting the health care bank. The annual health care bill in Canada is over $180 billion per year and about 12 per cent of GDP. Diet-related chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and stroke make up two-thirds of the direct costs and will increase in the coming years.

And if children are our future, the prospects look even grimmer. For the first time in two centuries, the current generation of children in America may have less healthful and shorter lives than their parents, according to a 2005 report in the New England Journal of Medicine. While American kids are fatter than Canadians, our tots are tipping the scales at similar thresholds. Canada has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the developed world, ranking fifth out of 34 oecd countries. As of 2004, 26 per cent of young Canadians aged 2 to 17 years are overweight or obese, up from 15 per cent in 1978.

As a result of food-related disease, among other things, we have an outdated sickcare system that will bankrupt our nation, says Carole Taylor, B.C.’s former minister of finance. We can choose to spend 80 per cent of provincial budgets taking care of sick people, we can go two-tier, or we can address the root of the problem with prevention or, in this case, food.

Bridging the silos of government so we have systems for health across all relevant ministries, including agriculture is something long advocated for by Dr. Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s Minister of Public Health from 2003 to 2006.

“Do you think we should have a strong fence at the top of the cliff, or a state-of-the-art fleet of ambulances and paramedics waiting at the bottom?” asks Bennett. Yet the health ministry has almost none of the tools required to build a fence. “The health of our population cannot be the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Health,” she says, openly confessing she wasn’t able to put her fingers on many of the crucial levers that influence health while in power. With time on the sidelines to reflect, she helped unveil the Liberal party’s national food policy this spring, marking the first time an official federal party document linked farmers to health care. “We can’t prevent disease, fight obesity or control health care costs if we don’t get more healthy home-grown food on our tables,” she said at the policy launch. “Our farmers will be central to meeting the health care challenge of the next decade.”

Federal Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz, unfortunately, could not offer similar insights. His email response to a query on what Canada is doing to align the agricultural system with better health outcomes said his government is focusing on making Canadian farmed products seem safe for international trade, but did not comment on the health of said products.

Dr. Franco Sassi explains we subsidize fat 50 times more than food with functional health benefits like fruits and vegetables, and in many cases subsidies actually serve to raise the price of fruits and vegetables.

As author of Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat, which was presented to the OECD’s Health Ministerial Meeting in October 2010, Sassi is disappointed the agricultural ministers weren’t invited to the October meeting, because the health ministers don’t have much power over agricultural subsidies. He also says while obesity is the result of too many calories and too little activity, studies show it is cheaper to influence a person’s diet than their physical activity.

The mainstream media missed most of the interesting parts of Fit not Fat, merely mentioning our climbing obesity rate. While Canada is one of the fattest countries in OECD, there are signs our battle with the bulge may be waning, as the rate of increase in adulthood obesity has been the slowest in the OECD. Canada can also save 25,000 lives a year by implementing a suite of policy interventions, ranging from nutrition counselling to taxes to labelling—most interventions cost less than $200 million per year.

But the most interesting takeaway is that Canada may be the best guinea pig for fiscal measures that make healthy food more affordable and fat food more expensive—the only intervention recommended by the OECD that actually pays for itself. The OECD analysis considered a fat tax/thin subsidy model where fiscal measures would increase the price of foods with a high fat content by ten per cent, and decrease the price of fruit and vegetables in the same proportion—saving 8,510 lives per year in Canada at almost no cost.

Dalton McGuinty played with the idea of fat taxes in Ontario in 2004, before retreating on account of the outcry that it would be a “poor tax” disproportionately hurting lower-income groups. Well, according to the oecd analysis, a fat tax combined with a “thin subsidy” would boost the fortunes of the less financially stable more so in Canada than in almost any other OECD country. Interestingly, the OECD also found implementing a food advertising regulation to limit the marketing of junk food to children, had a similar positive impact on lower income groups in Canada.

Kelly Brownell heads up The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and his mission is to battle obesity precisely by using a fat tax/thin subsidy combination, subsidizing produce and health promotion with a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. “Healthy food costs too much and unhealthy food costs too little,” he says. The USDA estimates his proposed penny-per-ounce tax would reduce consumption by between 10 and 23 per cent. The Congressional Budget Office calculates this tax would raise $150 billion over ten years, while reducing health care costs in the U.S. by $50 billion. Brownell says there are currently 17 cities and states in the U.S. who are serious about this.

Not surprisingly, and like big tobacco before them, the front men for soda conglomerates like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are hitting back with a vengeance. The American Beverage Association has poured millions of dollars into ballot initiatives to repeal soda taxes. Refreshments Canada is no shrinking violet either.

After Corporate Knights contacted Coke about soda taxes, Justin Sherwood, Refreshments Canada’s rather jovial president, became our new best friend. He feels a soda tax unfairly singles out a single industry, and would not make a dent in obesity, as full calorie soft drinks account for just 2.5 per cent of the average calories consumed daily. When asked what he thinks of a revenue neutral approach of offsetting an unhealthy sugared-soda tax, with equivalent rebates for other options, Sherwood dismissed the idea as “social engineering on a grand scale,” while taking exception to the characterization that sugared soda-pop is unhealthy.

“All beverages can be considered healthy,like a slice of chocolate cake can be healthy, or a hamburger can be healthy. Just don’t eat it morning noon and night,” he said.

Over the course of the next two days, Sherwood diligently e-mailed no less than 16 studies showing HFCS is no better or worse than other sweeteners. Interestingly, a recent Princeton study found in some instances, rats fed kibble with HFCS gained significantly more weight than rats fed kibble with table sugar, even though their overall caloric intake was the same. After Brownell saw the reports, he pointed out that many of the authors take lots of money from industry.

Whether we’re dealing with corn-fattened beef, or the HFCS in Coke, corn is just the medium of expression for an industrial logic that caters to human weakness. The agricultural production of corn operates in the increasingly out-of-touch abstraction that Planet Earth is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the economy. But we are finally waking up to the dementia of the commoditized food system because of the staggering costs showing up in the health care bill threatening to cripple government finances.

The people closest to the action, the farmers, are voting with their feet—fleeing the commodity pit that used to be a family farm, for greener pastures.

“We lost 10,000 farmers between 2006 and 2008, out of 120,000 farmers in the country,” says Joan Brady, National Farmers Union (NFU) National Women’s President. The combined debt of Canadian farmers is $65 billion. While the government hands out billions of dollars of farm support payments each year, it does so based on gross margins, not the nutritional value of food raised.

“The problem,” says Ross Hinther, Director of Research for NFU, “is that the farmer has no market power. The supply chain is dominated by a small number of industrial players who set prices and call the shots.”

For example, just two companies, Tyson and Cargill, control 80 per cent of meatpacking. “What is lacking is domestic marketing and physical infrastructure that supports farmers, and a misguided federal policy that is all geared to exporting food as a commodity,” Brady explains. To get things back on track, we need a paradigm shift predicated on Canadian farmers feeding Canadians first, the resurrection of the family farm, and fiscal recognition of the environmental good and services that farmers protect and generate.

President and CEO of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, David McInnes published similar thoughts in a 2009 report, “We are on track for 80 per cent of provincial budgets going to health care, and we are spending billions of dollars on farmers’ income support. We need to reconcile these two,” he says. “Our food system, human health, and ecological well-being are all connected, and agriculture can be a solution provider to all of them.”

The last word goes to behavioural economist Dan Ariely. “I think fatty, sugary foods build on some of our human weaknesses. We just like fat and sugar,” he says. “And when we design the world around us, we can do it either with a view to abuse our inherent nature, or we can try to take it into account and make it so we don’t fall victim to our worst instincts.”

This article has been nominated for a RNAO Award for Excellence in Health-Care Reporting.

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