Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis smiling in front of a dense cornfield

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Can you go a week without eating corn? We did!

Corny Corn Maze
Master the maze to get an earful of corn fun and facts.

So You Want to Be a Farmer?
See how corn farming has changed and try your hand at the cornulator.

Alternatives to Ears
Find ways around high-fructose corn syrup and fatty burgers.

Bushels & Cents: Corn and the Farm Bill

You don't have to move to Iowa or grow an acre of corn to understand U.S. farm policy, or to see its powerful effect on the American food system. Just take a stroll through the supermarket or see what's cooking at the local fast-food restaurant, and you’ll notice a telling trend. Corn is everywhere, and most obviously, it’s in the corn-fed burgers and corn-sweetened sodas that are abundant in the American diet.

A sign that reads: Oat $1 38, Corn $1 92, Beans $4 93

But this ubiquity of corn products is not entirely fueled by market demand. All-out production of corn (a record 300 million tons were harvested in 2007) and low corn prices (read: 99 cent hamburgers and free soda refills) are also driven by government policy. In particular, they’re powered by a complex piece of legislation dubbed the Farm Bill, which comes up for reauthorization in Congress every five to seven years.

Earl Butz
Earl Butz

America has enacted farm relief legislation since the New Deal-era, when aid programs set in motion under the Roosevelt Administration obligated farmers to keep production low so that crop prices would remain high. But the modern Farm Bill bears little resemblance to its 1930s counterpart. Since President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz abolished production limits in the early 1970s, corn farmers have been guaranteed a livable income by a subsidy system that doles out cash even when the market is already flooded with corn.

These subsidies have become big business. While initially meant to protect farmers from the vagaries of weather and the fickleness of the free market system, the subsidy system now often rewards big growers over small- and mid-sized producers. Moreover, in recent decades it has tended to consolidate government payments in the hands of a few. Between 2003 and 2005, for example, American taxpayers paid $34.75 billion in crop subsidy benefits to farmers, but only the top one percent of farmers received nearly one-fifth of that amount. In Iowa, 70 percent of subsidy payments go to only 20 percent of the state’s commodity farmers.

An extended tube emitting more corn onto a towering pile of corn

This government support for big corn growers has meant that corn farmers have little incentive to curtail their production. Record-breaking harvests continue to overflow grain bins and elevators across the Midwest. In turn, corn-based feeds remain a relatively inexpensive and convenient option for livestock producers, and corn sweeteners and oils offer a cheap and ready ingredient for processed foods like sodas and french fries.

A front, close-up view of a row of tractors

In contrast, the Farm Bill currently offers little reward to farmers who grow nutrient-rich with corn to land that produces watermelons or tomatoes. The result is an imbalance in the price of healthy foods versus unhealthy ones. Throughout the 1990s, the real price of fruits and vegetables rose 40 percent. And by 2000, the price of many sodas and other junk foods had dropped to 80 percent of their price in 1985.

Even as an increase in obesity prompts warnings from public health officials, American farm policy continues to set the stage for the mass production of high calorie and low nutrition corn products. In turn, these foods continue to dominate the American foodscape.

Updated 4/14/08

Find out about the corn sweetener industry >>

Learn about how corn farming has changed >>

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