An ear of fresh sweet corn is one of the joys of summer, but it represents a small fraction of the more than 10 billion bushels of corn produced in the United States in 2012. Although corn yields increased slowly from 1870 to World War II (1.1 billion to 2.2 billion), the advent of war and the resulting manpower shortage encouraged the use of technology to rapidly increase production. J.L Anderson, a leading historian of the agrarian Midwest, has pointed to the close relationship between corn and cattle and argued that in the immediate post-war period, too, “farmers decreased production costs by substituting machines for labor, used pesticides to destroy weed and insect pests that were obstacles to high crop yields and livestock gains, fertilized fields with chemicals, installed automated feeding systems, and added feed supplements that accelerated animals’ ability to absorb nutrients and calories.” Without nitrogen-based fertilizer (pioneered by German scientist Fritz Haber), mechanical harvesting equipment and hybrid corn (advanced by Vice President and Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace) this unprecedented growth would not have been possible. Later, in the mid-1990s, genetically modified organisms, developed by corporations like Monsanto, came to represent more than 75% of the acreage devoted to the production of corn. Today corn plays an ever-present role in our lives.
Scientific advancements to increase corn yields have made it easier to feed a growing population in the United States and the world, but these changes have also meant the industrialization of the food systems which bring food from the farmer’s field to our plates. These advancements have transformed corn into a primary ingredient in the cattle, poultry and pork feed and the ethanol used in gasoline . Indeed, corn used for fuel alcohol production increased from less than 1% of total U .S. domestic corn use in 1980-81 to almost 25% in 2007-08.
Corn’s omnipotence today owes much to federal government policy. In the 1970s government farm policy increased subsidies for corn farmers, making corn less expensive. Although processors began converting corn starch into high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the 1940s and 1950s as a cheap alternative to sugar, it was only in the 1970s when they began using it in large quantities. In 1980, Coca-Cola, for instance, began using HFCS in soft drinks; by 1984 both Coke and Pepsi no longer used sugar at all. Using HFCS rather than sugar has kept the price of the product down, but both HFCS and sugar have the same number of calories. Consumption of soda in America has skyrocketed since the 1960s, when soda manufacturers sold their product in 6 ½ ounce bottles; today, their bottles contain 20 ounces. Over the past 25 years, for instance, American per capita consumption of soda per year has grown from 28 gallons to nearly 45 gallons.
The revolution in corn production has also affected cattle feeding and the modern beef diet. Modern beef factories congregated on the southern plains in western Kansas hold as many as 100,000 cattle in confined feedlots in contrast to the late 19th century feedlots which rarely contained more than 1,000 head. Cattle in today’s giant feedlots are fattened for about six months on cheap, surplus corn, protein supplements and drugs, including antibiotics and growth hormones, in order to reach a “finished” weight of 1,250 pounds because those raised solely on grass take longer to reach slaughter weight, and the modern meat industry wants to extinguish a beef calf’s life at 14-16 months, as opposed to the life span of 4-5 years in the early 20th century.
Ironically, corn growers have not benefitted from the increased yields that scientific breakthroughs and subsidies have made possible. Growers are often plagued by overproduction, which leads to lower commodity prices and little or no profit. They sell their corn primarily to a few large processors, which process it for use in soda, animal feed, and ethanol.