Saturday, April 21, 2007

Taking Ears Off Your Life

Greetings, colonels.

Today's post is going to look at some of the dietary consequences of US corn subsidies. The United States corn industry is politically untouchable since so many processed foods are made from corn derivatives. (If you're interested in more details about factory foods, I thoroughly recommend Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

While many wary eaters know that corn products like corn-fed beef and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are wrecking dietary havoc among the American people, it's difficult to assault the entrenched food industry without convincing facts about just how much direct damage corn subsidies do to our health. In this post I'm going to show that we can blame pretty much all of our HFCS woes on corn subsidies, and I'm going to show how much damage HFCS really does.

Corn Subsidies

Ever since 1975, the United States has been paying farmers to grow corn in excess of the quantities which the market would naturally bear. Taxpayers make up the difference between the market price and a government-guaranteed price, which is often in the neighborhood of twice the buying price of corn. Americans pay over $5 billion per year (about $17 per capita) to keep farmers producing way more corn than we could ever safely consume.

Consequences of Corn Subsidies

Corn farmers aren't the ones getting rich; the net effect of corn subsidies is to ensure a huge surplus of raw biomass to be used to manufacture higher-value food products. From The Omnivore's Dilemma, I learned that about 60% of the corn grown in the United States goes to animal feed, and much of the remainder goes into producing HFCS. If you drink diet soda or if you steer clear of US-grown meat, your taxes are paying for someone else's unhealthy diet. (Show of hands: would anyone out there resent subsidizing tobacco?)

HFCS Created by Corn Subsidies

If I'm going to accuse subsidies for making us eat unhealthy corn and corn-fed meat, I'd better be sure the subsidies are actually to blame. There are three factors which make methink corn subsidies are the root cause of pretty much all the HFCS consumed by Americans. First, HFCS is cheaper than cane sugar in the US due to subsidy. Second, in Europe, where corn isn't favored like it is in North America, HFCS is almost never used as a processed food sweetener. Third, the timing of the introduction of the corn subsidy coincides with the explosive growth of HFCS consumption in the US, as is evident in this graph (from this USDA site):

Corn subsidies were introduced in 1975, before which it's plain that HFCS was a bit player. Also note that soft drinks began phasing in HFCS as a sweetener, a transformation completed by 1984. (I fancy I can see the kink in the HFCS curve around 1984 - I wonder if that's caused by saturating the soda market.)

Fat Caused by HFCS

If HFCS were like normal unhealthy food, at least a calorie of HFCS consumed would displace a calorie from some other source, meaning that HFCS wouldn't be more responsible for today's obesity epidemic than any other unhealthy food. However, as I mentioned in this post, a recent study showed that HFCS doesn't make you feel full, so consuming HFCS will not make you eat less of other things. (The 95% confidence limit to this study was that 100 HFCS calories may displace 24 other food calories, but the study's best estimate is that people actually eat 17 more calories of other foods for every 100 HFCS calories they consume. Also note that other liquefied sugars may be just as bad as HFCS at displacing other calories.)

Even if you take the most charitable view towards HFCS allowed by the study's margin of error, 76% of the HFCS calories consumed by Americans go to fat. The average annual per capita consumption of HFCS in the United States is 59 pounds. Even assuming half of that gets wasted, that means annually an extra 22 lbs of sugar per American is consumed just because HFCS happens to be today's sweetener of choice. According to this publication (page 13 - also interesting because it claims HFCS might be not worse than other liquid sugars), HFCS is about 4/9 as calorie-dense as fat, so the availability of HFCS means that on average Americans gain an extra 10 lbs per year.


On average, $17 of your taxes every year go to a subsidy which causes people to gain an astonishing 10 lbs per year just through the HFCS mechanism I've outlined. (I expect subsidized animal feed also makes Americans fatter, but the story there is harder to untangle.) Moreover, the over-fertilized Iowa corn monocultures are horrible on the environment, and have killed Mexican farms which can't compete with American corn prices. (Those of you who object to Mexican farm labor should throw your lot in with the anti-subsidy crowd: it's just the subsidies which enable Americans to pay migrant workers $4 an hour while just across the boarder no farmer can afford to hire at $1 an hour. It's not something magic in the soil which makes American farms magically 4 times as efficient at turning labor into food - its the subsidies.)

In conclusion, corn subsidies do enormous harm. While I haven't supported every anti-subsidy argument in this post, I've shown that without corn subsidies you'd have the equivalent weight loss of 10 lbs per year. (I suspect many Americans diet more because of their HFCS-related weight gain - imagine if you got an extra 10 lbs of "free" fat per year! Mmmm... what I'd do!)

It's going to be a tough fight against the food industry, but there are lots of good reasons to abandon our current destructive corn-driven Leviathan. Let's ditch the subsidies and let 'em howl.