Big Corn's Big PR Problem

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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.

Sources: Christian
Science Monitor
, Civil
Eats
, World
Bank
, News
at Princeton
, Huffington,
Food Fight. 

Image by Ingeniero
hidr.
, licensed under Creative Commons.

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