C is for Corn

Making a trip to the grocery store today? Then the chance you'll come home with an item containing corn are quite good. In fact, a typical grocery store contains over 4,000 items, or nearly 75% of all its products, with corn in some processed form listed in the ingredients. Of course we're talking about corn flakes, but also beer, breads, paper products and even your cosmetics. And don't forget your meat - more than likely, that animal consumed corn at some point in its lifetime.

Before you head to your pantry to start reading labels, stay with me to learn a bit more about how that corn made its way into your pantry so prolifically.

I want to assume that you know corn is annual plant and that the kernels of corn we eat or process grow from the ears on said plant. However, after a strange encounter in college during a trip to a leadership conference, I no longer make such assumptions.

A number of years ago, I was sitting on a bus next to a seemingly bright young lady studying at MIT. She was some sort of a biological engineering major - studying news ways to use plants and biological products. By this time, my "state university major in agricultural economics" wasn't holding water. Then she asked me about what was growing in the fields outside our bus window. We were traversing Illinois, and now feeling like I actually had something to offer to the conversation, I quickly replied, "Corn." To which she replied, "Really? I thought corn grew on trees and came back every year."

My state university education just became priceless.

To set the record straight - corn is an annual plant that grows 7-10 feet tall and is supported by a strong root system. A tassel grows from the top of the stalk and contains hundreds of pollen producing flowers. This pollen must come in contact with the ears' silks - long threads connected to each kernel - in order to produce a kernel of corn.

Corn is planted annually in the springtime - usually mid to late April - and corn acres are concentrated in the Corn Belt. Think the "I" states - Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. Throw in Nebraska and Minnesota and you'll have the majority of US corn production. Kansas ranks 8th nationally, but our production is a mere quarter of what Iowa can produce.

Conventional corn production requires an application of Nitrogen and Phosphorous to the fields just before planting. Corn, by nature, requires a readily available supply of Nitrogen in the soil. Weeds can be managed with an application of a herbicide. As no-till farming gains popularity - a practice of making fewer trips over the fields to cultivate weeds by allowing plant material to remain on the ground thus reducing soil erosion, holding water, and preventing weed emergence - farmers are using fewer herbicides. Herbicide and pesticide use has also decreased thanks to the technologies of genetically modified seed hybrids. Specifically, Bt corn (corn borer eats this corn plant and dies) and Round-Up Ready Corn (can spray weeds with Round-Up without killing the corn) are leading the way in reducing chemical applications.

Organic corn production uses manure, nitrogen fixation through using legumes in the crop rotation, and other sources such as cottonseed meal, blood meal, fish meal and feather meal to supply nitrogen. Other fertilizer needs are supplied through lime or other rock minerals. Weeds and pests are managed through a more extensive crop rotation system, in addition to other approved methods. For example, pests can be managed by introducing other types of pests to feed on the problem pest or by "feeding" the pest a (natural) product that will kill it. Weeds can be controlled though cultivation - passing over the field with a implement designed to "rip" the weeds from ground without harming the corn plant.

Organic production comprised 21% of the 2008 crop and returned premiums to the producer 20-50% higher than conventional corn. These premiums also result in higher prices at the grocery store. Why? Organic production has inherently higher production costs - more extensive crop rotation systems cause farmers to skip a cash crop growing season, it takes more acres to produce the same amount of corn, it involves more passes over the field, more intensive labor, and a carefully monitored processing system so that organic corn is not contaminated with conventional corn.

As of November 2009, organic corn was selling for $6.00 per bushel, its conventional counterpart, $3.96. A box of corn flakes contains less than a nickel's worth of corn.

In 2008, total US corn production was about 12 billion bushels. Here's what happened once that corn left the farm gate:

  • 0.2% - Seed for next year's crop
  • 1.6% - Food - Americans eat 120 million bushels of processed corn. My hubby thinks corn tortilla chips are a staple in his diet.
  • 2% - Starch - for thickening foods and use in biodegradable plastics
  • 30% - Ethanol
  • 4% - Corn sweeteners, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • 44.4% - Livestock feed
  • 14.6% - Exports
  • 1.5% - Ending stocks, providing supply in the event of a poor crop year
What about sweet corn? Well, my friend Tera, over at Food for Thought, did some excellent research on sweet corn. Check this out! And at this time, I need to give credit to the excellent work my father-in-law and his sweet corn raising pals do each year with their sweet corn. Thanks to them, my kids will no longer eat any other kind of corn except their sweet, homegrown variety.

Oh, and what about popcorn? It's primarily grown in the northern Missouri and southern Iowa portion of the Corn Belt. Popcorn is an excellent high-fiber snack for you and your kiddos (if you can skimp on the salt and butter), and I fully recommend using a popper like this. You'll never go back to the microwave variety.

Corn processing involves one of two methods: wet milling or dry milling. Wet milling soaks the corn and then separates the components to yield starch, sweeteners and fermentation products. Dry milling removed the germ and the fiber, and then uses the starch and the protein to yield grits, corn meal and corn flour.

And now for the "bigger picture."

Is US corn production subsidized by the federal government?

Yes. Why? Because food production is risky business (think volatile to the weather), food security is important to a modern society, and these policies help to guarantee a world market for US production. Other countries, especially those in the European Union, heavily subsidize their production. (The Common Agriculture Policy in the EU represents 43 percent of the EU budget compared to 0.63 percent of the US federal budget. That does not include nutrition funding, which makes up 75 percent of farm bill funding. Nutrition has a different budget line.) Until they agree to level the playing field, the US is forced to implement WTO (World Trade Organization) compliant policies such as direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, the ACRE program and crop insurance. (Thanks to my sister, Mary, a belt-way insider, for the stats!)

Is corn produced for ethanol taking food away from hungry people?

No. Remember, we only eat a small percentage of the field corn produced in the way of processed foods (corn meal, cereals, chips). The majority of US corn exports go to feed livestock in developed countries. Additionally, new demand for corn is being met with increased supply, and farmers are doing that on fewer acres. In the past ten years, corn acres grew by 22%, but total yield grew by 40%.

Is sugar healthier than High Fructose Corn Syrup?

HFCS has a bit of an image problem these days. Read this for more information, but in the mean time, remember what the commerical has to say, "HFCS, just like sugar, is fine in moderation and as part of a balanced diet and active lifestyle."

All in all, corn is a pretty amazing commodity. One you'll certainly think differently about the next time you pick up a box of corn flakes.

How's that for an "ear" full about corn? If you have more questions, let me know. I have many more kernels of information to share with you!


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