Thursday, October 4, 2012

King Corn

    Brain is all fired up today, and it all started with a field of corn. Yes, Corn. I drive through farmland on my way to work. It is a perfectly pastoral commute, and inspires many a wondrous fantasy. But today, Brain decided to yank my reality chain, force me to look at the details as well as the big picture of what may well be a major factor in the downfall of our concept of civilization. Corn inspired this? Corn, at the root of deep, grim thoughts? Yes. As I drove past the verdant field, Brain was already fretting about the financial burden of driving a gas guzzling, over-sized, pig of an SUV. I was watching the gas gauge, fretting over how far $40 of gas does not go, crunching numbers in my skull, unhappy with the answers no matter how I calculated and tallied. Brain was scrambling to come up with ways to cut financial corners, not quite moving into the Robbing Peter to Pay Paul arena, but skirting the edges for sure. What does this have to do with Corn? Passing the aforementioned cornfield I had a fleeting thought, wondering if the corn would be harvested for human or livestock consumption, or, more likely, biofuel.
    Biofuel. The ecological dream concept; a renewable, clean, American source of fuel for our gas guzzling masses. As great a concept as this is, few seem to be looking at the Big Picture. Let me play a bit of the Devil's Advocate here. Corn permeates our society on nearly every level. It is used in almost every packaged food on the shelf wearing a variety of faces: cornmeal, corn flour, corn starch, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, and the demonspawn high fructose corn syrup. It is in cereals, processed meats, salad dressings, condiments, soups, beans, canned fruit, jams and jellies, dairy products, creamer, snacks, main courses, desserts, breads, crackers, the list is infinite. It makes things thick, sticky and non-stick. It is the main source of food for our food: beef, pork, poultry, eggs. It quite literally permeates our entire society and our way of life. Corn makes us abundant, wealthy, over-fed. It is the maligned culprit behind our obesity epidemic. We export it, store it, stockpile it. Our currency and global trading power factors corn into the numbers. And now we are putting it in our gas tanks.
    Corn seems like the Hero Superfood, it can do Anything. Now *cue demoniacal laughter* comes the Devil's Advocate Part: can we truly afford to pay the price? Here is where I will lose most people. Isn't Corn easy to grow? Don't we have millions of acres planted in Corn in the Mid-West? Hello, King Corn? Let's start with basics. Corn is what is known as a "heavy feeder," it requires massive amounts of nitrogen and water to grow and produce heavy yields. To achieve this, the farmers, okay, not "farmers", the mega-farm corporations rely on huge amounts of chemical fertilizer, as well as heavy doses of pesticides. This may be a huge bone of contention for the majority of the environmentally minded, and it is indeed a concern. Another bone, Genetically Modified varieties. Long gone are the days of saving seed corn for next year, and I won't even dip my toes into the quagmire that surrounds this particular subject. In days of yore, there were hundreds of varieties of Corn. Today there are Seven used for commercial production. Seven. Yes, there are  a few hybrids and heirlooms that you can special order from your favorite seed catalog, but none of these are "profitable." So, we are consuming and being consumed by plants that have been created in the lab, genetically modified to fit very specific parameters, altered in ways that may or may not be harmful to our health. Studies have linked genetically modified Corn to health issues including increased rates of cancer. Most of Europe has banned the growth and import of GMOs. Well, there goes our import powers. And still the Mega-Farms plant and grow, harvest and sell, cram it all down the throats of an unsuspecting and/or uncaring population.
    You would think that the previous declarations would be enough to make Corn a hair-raising terror. But wait. There's more. Wait for it. Wait for it. Water. Water, H2O. Two hydrogen atoms bound with one Oxygen atom to form the basis of All Life on our planet. Without water, I would be dead in a few days. Certainly there is enough water to grow our food? Well, yes and no. We have converted the dry plains of the Heartland into millions of acres of lush, verdant growth by draining rivers dry, and tapping into ancient aquifers. Aquifers, Ground Water. Sink a well, draw out all the water you need, right? Well, Right Now. We are draining these ancient underground sources at an alarming rate. They do not readily refill. This is water that percolated through the rock over a millennia. It will not refill in our lifetime. So, we are using massive amounts of water to grow genetically modified and potentially dangerous corn so we can fill our guts and drive gas guzzling SUVs. In every sense, we are depleting our water so we can live a life of gluttony. We are using an invaluable resource, the most important resource, so we can pay a little cheaper price at the pump, drive our big cars, and not invest in alternative, clean, truly renewable energy. There are untapped resources just waiting for the impetus to make them viable and accessible. What are we waiting for? Waiting for water to become the next rare commodity? Waiting until we are living no the verge of savagery as barbaric tribes fight for water rights? The popular consensus it that biofuel is our salvation, our freedom from the shackles of oil dependency, our savior from the stranglehold of imported oil. Instead, Corn based biofuel is one more step towards the complete, manmade breakdown of our ecosystem. And no one sees it.
     Where did all these grim ruminations get me? Besides heartburn? It lead me further up the path, to Conservation. Moderation in all things. Learning to vilify conspicuous consumption. If we, as individuals, made conscious choices to not buy into the corporate mythologies. If we used the voting power of our dollars to intentionally choose viable alternatives. But we won't. Most people cannot see beyond the narrow scope of their own existence far enough to even notice their own declining health, the damages being inflicted on their own microcosms. Most people are incapable of seeing the ramifications of their actions. Or they simply do not care. We are living in a time of ennui. So many don't notice the world, don't care what will happen tomorrow, much less next week, next year or the next decade. They live in the immediate of the now.
    The choices we make not only reflect who we are, but effect who we are, who we know, where we live. Our choices define us. Our choices can redefine the future. But inertia steals impetus. And all this, these ideas, connections, correlations, all because I drove past a field of Corn.

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