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A Corn-Fed Farm Policy

June 2, 2002
By Greg Critser
Greg Critser is the author of Fat Land, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in January.

It's not just the Farm Belt — and its faithful Republican voters--who were handed a victory with the farm bill that President Bush pushed through last month. It's also the snack-food industry, the beef industry and, in all likelihood, the makers of plus-size pants. Their victory comes via what many consider the quintessential American crop: corn.

Not since the 1970s, when then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz exhorted the Midwest to plant corn from "fence row to fence row," have corn farmers been handed such a plum. It was that policy that created today's huge corn surpluses, which in turn created today's very profitable high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, industry. Today's farm-bill subsidies — $190 billion for all crops over 10 years — will give us more of the same: more cheap corn, more HFCS, all underwritten by urban taxpayers. But before we celebrate, a question: Do we really want all that cheap sweetener? Let's look at what it's done. Coca-Cola and Pepsi were among the first to see the future. In the 1980s, the companies, wanting out from under long-standing import tariffs that kept the price of sugar high, reformulated their drinks, shifting them from 25% HFCS and 75% cane sugar to 100% HFCS. The cost savings were immediate and enormous — more than 20% — causing Coke's president of the period, Roberto Goizueta, to claim the reformulation as one of his principal executive victories.

The inexpensive sweetener had another effect on the soft-drink industry as well: bigger servings. As soda became cheaper to manufacture, its purveyors didn't charge us less: They simply gave us more. With HFCS, the Big Gulp was both possible and profitable.

If plentiful corn syrup revolutionized the soft-drink industry, so it also revolutionized the snack-food market, pushing food product development in the direction of cheap snacks and bakery products. Not only was the sweetener cheap, but its unique molecular structure, as its principal manufacturer, the A.E. Staley Co., points out, allows convenience foods to last longer on the shelf, imbues them with a tantalizing brown color when baked and confers a "highly desirable mouth-feel" that regular sugar lacks. It was — and is — a perfect industrial food.

The number and variety of high-calorie snack foods have consequently soared. Where all through the 1960s and 1970s the number of new candy and snack products each year remained stable — at about 250 — it jumped to about 1,000 by the mid-1980s and to about 2,000 by the late 1980s. The rate of new, high-calorie bakery foods also jumped substantially. A revealing graphic of this trend, charted against the rise in obesity rates, was published by a group of nutrition scholars from Tufts University in 1999; the two lines rise in remarkable tandem.

But the "cornification" of our diet has come with a price. Corn overproduction has become a major poison in trade politics. Ever since Mexican authorities complained in 1998 that U.S. firms were dumping corn syrup there and decimating that nation's indigenous sugar industry, there has been tension between the two countries over corn. There is currently a low-level trade war over the issue, with Mexico having recently slapped a hefty tax on soft drinks sweetened with anything other than cane sugar, and the U.S. having erected its own barriers.

For their part, the Europeans have still not forgiven our corn industry for its widespread use of genetically modified varieties, one result of which is a de facto boycott of U.S. corn products on the Continent and the loss of $800 million in exports. They are even angrier about the new subsidies, which just skirt World Trade Organization limits on price supports.

Still, commodities being the life blood of trade relationships, one might be inclined to live with such frictions were it not for the growing scientific concern about the impact of HFCS on our bodies. Since the mid-1970s, use of the sweetener has soared; it now accounts for about 9% of the average American's daily caloric intake, with about one out of 10 Americans — many of them children — getting up to 20% of their daily calories from it.

A big part of the problem, of course, is that sweet things tend to be filled with empty calories that provide little nutrition. But scientists are also concerned about properties unique to HFCS. Unlike sugar, which undergoes an intermediary absorption process in the small intestine, the fructose in HFCS proceeds directly to the bloodstream and to the liver, where, an increasing body of evidence suggests, it may cause potentially harmful metabolic changes. Some studies have suggested it may increase cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood and increase the risk of coronary artery disease.

For years, the corn and sweeteners industries have dismissed concerns, insisting that fructose, which we traditionally got from fresh fruits, is "the same as all other sweeteners." This defense is now being questioned by mainstream science. Two years ago, clinical nutritionist John Bantle at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis fed two dozen healthy volunteers a diet that derived 17% of total calories from fructose — the percentage that Bantle believes about 27 million Americans eat regularly (particularly all of those fast-food "heavy users"). Bantle measured the volunteers' blood fats and sugars and then switched them to a diet sweetened mainly with glucose. The results were dramatic. The fructose diet produced significantly higher triglycerides in the blood — in men about 42% higher — than the glucose-sweetened diet. The fructose diets also made triglyceride levels peak faster — just after the meal, when such fats can do the most damage to artery walls. Other studies indict HFCS for inducing premature aging in skin and suggest it has a role in skyrocketing rates of irritable bowel syndrome.

Commenting on such findings, researchers in the conservative American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have noted that "these deleterious changes [by dietary fructose] occur in the absence of any beneficial effect ... and these abnormalities ... appear to be greater in those individuals already at an increased risk for coronary artery disease."

The point is not that we should stop growing corn — or even stop making HFCS. The former would be silly and we don't know enough about the latter yet to make that kind of decision. But we do know enough from 25 years of corn politics to realize that giant corn subsidies push us even further down the path of big corn. And while that may play well with President Bush's swing state voters, it won't play well with the rest of us.

That isn't to say that most urbanites are outraged by the notion of industrial agriculture. They aren't. But they do want a farm policy that balances business concerns with modern nutritional concerns. If we institute policies that lead to vast increases in production of a commodity, we have to look at where that product leads us. Most urbanites are not outraged by the notion of industrial agriculture. They just want it to be part of a coherent domestic policy.

They do not want to be brushed aside with remarks like: "What are you worried about? HFCS is the same as sugar." They want someone — Department of Agriculture scientists, industry leaders, food makers — to take up such issues and study them thoroughly. They want to know whether more HFCS is something truly worth a trade war with a neighbor.

Or whether it is only worth its weight in trouble.