For decades, agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland has treated the U.S. corn belt — one of the globe’s greatest stores of natural soil fertility — the way an oil company treats an oil well: as something to be mined to the last drop. Propped up by a maddening tangle of government handouts, many of which it engineered itself through its legendary lobbying efforts, ADM bought corn cheap from U.S. farmers and sold it at tremendous profit in the form of such dubious products as high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol. And then, in 2006, when government goodies pushed ethanol production through the roof, ADM decided to to become the “Exxon of corn.” That’s when it hired Patricia Woertz, a longtime executive at Chevron, as its new CEO. Under Woertz, ADM’s plans for churning out huge profits by turning corn into car fuel haven’t always gone smoothly. But the company continues churning out that government-subsidized white lightning, and Midwestern cornfields continue losing soil and leeching fertilizer into the Gulf of Mexico, causing huge annual dead zones.
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