The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Ohio Corn

A few years ago, an elected official and his family attended a Sunday picnic at a century farm near Columbus. He loaded his family into the car on a bright August morning, and encouraged his children with anticipation of homemade pies, perfect potato salad, roasted vegetables, and maybe even juicy lamb burgers. Cornfields flanked the road on either side along the drive from Cleveland on south. Surely, fresh-roasted corn on the cob would be on the menu as well, he exclaimed. He had no idea that those beautiful fields with golden tassels and bulging ears of corn were planted with #2 yellow dent corn, which is commodity field corn, not sweet corn. In fact, only .1% of total acres operated in Ohio are dedicated to growing the succulent sweet corn that we relish in the summer.

Arriving at the appointed farmhouse, the family was greeted and led across the lawn to end-to-end picnic tables that formed a gingham-festooned banquet table. On the table, as befitting a picnic, were stacks of paper plates, large red plastic cups for beer or Pepsi, buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, bags of Mc- Donald’s burgers and fries, a couple large bowls of Fritos corn chips, and ice buckets full of supermarket-brand ice cream. As my friend told me the story, she expressed her confusion and dismay. The farmers were serving you what they grow, I explained.

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According to the latest USDA data, over 50% of the cropland in Ohio is dedicated to growing America’s top crops: field corn and soybeans. Unlike potatoes, green beans, apples, or tomatoes, field corn and soybeans are not edible straight from the field. Yet, they comprise a significant input in most of what we eat, from meat and poultry (especially fast foods), to most processed foods and bakery, to desserts and yes, even ice cream.

The National Corn Growers Association has a colorful website featuring uses of corn in everything from blowing bubbles with bubblegum and a child coloring with crayons to someone putting ketchup on a burger. The home page collage does not feature a cow or a car, even though subsequent graphs show that more than 37% of the U.S. corn crop goes to feed livestock and another 30% of the crop is converted to ethanol. Less than 10% of the corn grown in the U.S. goes into food production. Products derived from corn—mostly in the form of sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, starches for thickeners, and coatings—have affected the American diet in significant ways.

In her recent book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland, Cynthia Clampitt tells of corn’s role in sustaining settlers and their livestock. The book begins with the Puritans learning from the native people how to grow and prepare it, then goes on to the settlement of the vast untouched grasslands of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Corn made expansion westward possible. Farmers raised sweet corn and popcorn as well as various kinds of field corn to make corn meal, hominy, whiskey, and silage to feed livestock in the winter. Corn was a significant part of the prairie settlers’ diet. And that early corn had protein, minerals, and other important nutrients.

After the Civil War, the country became obsessed with efficiency. Agricultural colleges and research stations started turning out agricultural engineers who were caught up in the enthusiasm for machines that were pulled by horses. Equipment-driven farming followed. Large combines necessitated large fields. Our growing population necessitated increasing yields. When double-cross hybridization was developed in 1918, private entrepreneurs and researchers created hybrid varieties with straighter, stronger stalks and larger ears. Steady increase in yields using hybrid seeds grew from 26 bushels per acre to 40 bushels per acre by 1950. Giant munitions plants that had been used to make weapons during World War II were transformed into fertilizer and pesticide producers, so that by the 1980s, yields reached nearly 100 bushels per acre.

Corn became a commodity and no longer a simple food. Corn speculation became a way to make money. Nutritional content mattered little. The USDA has documented falling nutritional content of most farm products since the 1950s, corn included.

In 1980, the Supreme Court decision allowing for the patenting of life impacted corn’s development. Monsanto developed ways to insert genes of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into corn in order to kill the European corn borer. They also found a way to engineer seeds that produce plants that can withstand harm inflicted by the application of Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup. (Today, corn seed sold by Monsanto has stacked characteristics of Bt and Roundup ready.) Roundup use has increased 15 times worldwide since the introduction of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans in the 1990s. Corn yields topped 177 bushels per acre in 2017, although it is difficult to find consensus among published research papers as to how much the increased yields are linked to the genetically modified seed characteristics.

Genetically modified corn dramatically changed the environment and cost of corn production. Seeds are now owned by Monsanto and cannot be saved by farmers for the next season’s crop. Because corn is wind pollinated, it is difficult to prevent cross pollination with non-GMO corn. According to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association, 80% of corn planted in Ohio today is a genetically modified version.

The National Corn Growers Association paints a positive picture of the future of corn as a commodity with hundreds of industrial applications in addition to food. The evolution of corn and its partner crop, soybeans, has altered the rural landscape in Ohio in significant ways. The actual number of farms has shrunk by two-thirds since 1950, from about 200,000 to fewer than 75,000 today.

About 44% of farmland is rented, which means that even fewer farmers are stewards of our farmland. Over half of the farmers who remain in the state do not list farming as their primary occupation. Off-farm employment is necessary for health insurance and income because growing corn is a losing proposition. The roughly $400 million subsidies paid to Ohio corn growers in 2016 does not a living make. As for the American diet, cheap corn has made it possible for us to eat a whopping average of 270 pounds of meat per year and consume more processed foods with more sweeteners and starches than ever.

Thus, a picnic at a typical commodity farm—where what is served is what is grown—would indeed consist of fast foods, processed foods, and soft drinks. The evolution of field corn tells the story of American agriculture. Once one of many crops grown on a small diversified farm, corn is now a commodity crop grown on hundreds [of acres] of unoccupied farmland as an input to factory food production. This agriculture relies on a vast collection of processing, manufacturing, and transportation companies involved in supplying grocery stores and fast food chains. At the same time, according to the FDA, 50% of the fresh fruits and 20% of vegetables we eat are imported.

The farm-to-table movement has created a new set of farmers with a different business model. Will they succeed by selling at farmers markets, offering CSA farm shares, and supplying restaurants? A picnic at a farm is a wonderful thing and may even include sweet corn on the cob as a delicious reminder of fresh wholesome foods that farms in Ohio can produce, if we support them.