It’s been a bad week for corn. Less than a month after the Midwest heat wave threw a wrench into this year’s growing season, high-fructose corn syrup has been the subject of several scathing studies on its damage to the environment and human health.
In the first two, researchers at Harvard sought to find out why beehives were disappearing, says the Christian Science Monitor. Since 2006, honeybees have been abandoning otherwise perfectly healthy hives in record numbers across North America and Europe. The culprit? Of all things, high-fructose corn syrup. After harvesting a hive’s honey, many beekeepers augment the hive’s supply with a sugary sweetener (HFCS, being cheaper than real sugar, is a common go-to). The problem is that corn farmers typically treat their crop with a powerful insecticide called neonicotinoids, and trace amounts end up in the corn sweetener, which then infects the hive. The upshot, the Harvard studies found, is Colony Collapse Disorder, in which the hive’s countless worker bees fail to return after foraging for pollen. This isn't good at all for the species, and in larger terms, a sudden loss of such a critical player in the ecosystem could be devastating for environment and agriculture alike.
The third study addressed the rise in autism in the U.S., especially over the past decade. Between 2002 and 2008, the disorder jumped 78 percent, reports Civil Eats, and new evidence points to a food-related cause. The study, which was originally published in Clinical Epigenetics, looks at high-fructose corn syrup’s tendency to deplete zinc and calcium in the body. Without these, we have a harder time getting rid of heavy metals and toxins—like the kind that can impact early childhood development and lead to disorders like autism. While it can be difficult to nail down a single cause for the rise in autism, researchers are confident that the sweetener is a big part of the equation.
But to be fair, corn has had a big PR problem for a while now. Ethanol—once the darling of green-minded policymakers and consumers—has been shamed by soaring world food prices. In recent years, the crop’s most important product, high-fructose corn syrup, has been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes—and may even have addictive qualities similar to recreational drugs. It’s no wonder then that the Corn Refiners Association wants to rebrand the sweetener as “corn sugar” (something the sugar lobby will not take lying down).
What this really speaks to, however, is just how dependent we are one crop—or, one product of one crop. According to Food Fight, Daniel Imhoff’s fascinating new book on agriculture policy, U.S. farmers devote about 90 million acres to growing corn. This “area roughly the size of Montana” depends on billions of dollars worth of farm subsidies, and compromises 60 percent of the world’s corn supply. It can be really hard to find a food that is not in some way corn-based, but even then, we’re not seeing the whole picture, says Imhoff. Most corn goes into things like animal feed and biofuel, but of course that doesn’t mean it has no effect on humans. The Harvard study illustrates how potent this dependence can be, even when humans aren’t consuming anything. The bottom line is that, with the farm bill up for renewal in September, 2012 is a very good year to begin rethinking what we grow and why.