News flash: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a lousy product.

As Tom Laskawy reported here Tuesday, a recent study by Princeton researchers found that rats fed chow laced with HFCS gained more weight than rats fed equal calories of table sugar. All processed sweeteners add empty calories to food; but calorie for calorie, HFCS appears to be even worse than white sugar. Although the two sweeteners have roughly the same fructose/glucose ratio, we mammals seem to metabolize the HFCS differently than we do cane sugar.

That’s grim news. On average, Americans get 10 percent of their total calories from HFCS–and kids, who rank among its heaviest users, get an even higher percentage of calories from it.

And even if HFCS isn’t metabolized differently than table sugar–and some non-industry-related observers remain doubtful about the Princeton study–the ubiquitous sweetener would still be a lousy product. As I and others have argued before, rise of HFCS as a cheap sweetener (see chart, above) has helped push up overall sweetener consumption to unseen levels. In short, a gusher of sweetener from cornfields to food factories has resulted in billions of additional, and nutritionally void, calories in the American diet.

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All of which got me thinking about the enormous U.S. corn crop. If HFCS is a product of dubious social utility, what about the other uses of corn? Are they any better? The question has serious public-interest implications, because the federal government is a major underwriter of corn production. Between 1995 and 2006, the government paid out $56 billion in corn subsidies, the Environmental Working Group reports. Corn is our most lavishly subsidized food crop, by a wide margin; it drew more in subsidies over that period than wheat ($22 billion), soybeans ($14 billion), and rice ($11 billion)–combined.

Now, whenever one discusses subsidies, it’s important to note that the real beneficiaries aren’t farmers, most of whom scrape by, but rather the companies they sell their corn to: from grain trader/sweetener makers like Archer Daniels Midland to meat producers like Tyson (or mega-firms that perform both roles, like Cargill). A recent study by Tufts researchers Tim Wise and Alicia Harvie reckons that by putting downward pressure on corn and soy prices, federal subsidies saved chicken producers $11.3 billion, pork processors $8.5 billion, and beef packers $4.5 billion in the 1997-2005 time frame. Producers of HFCS benefitted, too, to the tune of $2.2 billion, the researchers estimate.

cornThe U.S. corn juggernaut.Source: National Corn Growers Association, World of Corn 2010OK, subsidy disclaimer to the side, let’s talk for a second about just how massive our corn crop is. According to this extraordinarily informative document from the National Corn Growers Association called the “2010 World of Corn,”  our corn crop is by far the world’s largest. We produce 42 percent of the globe’s corn–more than the next most prodigious corn-producing countries, China and Brazil, combined. (See chart, right.) We churn out six times as much corn as the entire European Union.

In acreage terms, fully a quarter of U.S. farmland is typically planted in corn (see chart, below left). Corn is typically grown in rotation with soybeans, which commands another quarter of our farmland. Thus together, these two industrial crops–neither of which can be consumed by people without heavy processing–occupy fully half of our farmland, a total area roughly equal in size to the state of Texas. And not just any farmland. The great bulk of corn and soy production takes place on what was once prime prairie terrain in the Midwest–one of the greatest stores of soil tilth and fertility on the globe.

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corn2As far as the eye can see: corn and its companion crop, soy, blanket half of U.S. farmland.Source: National Corn Growers Association, World of Corn 2010And to grow all that corn on that gorgeous land, farmers douse the soil annually with massive amounts of agrichemicals. In terms of synthetic and mined fertilizers, the corn crop sucks in nearly 40 percent of all nitrogen fertilizer applied in the United States, and upwards of 30 percent of phosphorous and potash. (Numbers crunched from USDA data, see table 2). Such voracious use of fertilizers causes all manner of ecological trouble (see our recent series on nitrogen fertilizer, as well as this discussion of the ravages of phosphorous mining).

This annual cascade of industrial fertilizers, along with other agrichemical inputs, advances in diesel-guzzling farm machines, and new seed-breeding techniques, has given rise to an extraordinary surge in corn yields. At the end of the ’60s, U.S. farmers were producing around 119 million metric tons of corn using 26 million hectares. Last year, they cranked out 334 million metric tons using 35 million hectares–a 180 percent increase, using only 34 percent more land. (Figures from above-linked World of Corn document.)

So where is all that corn going? Surely a crop that takes up a quarter of our land and burns through nearly 40 percent of our annual nitrogen use, and draws billions in annual subsidies, must deliver something amazing to make it worth all the trouble.

But the chart to the right offers other lessons. True, high-fructose corn syrup takes up just 3.5 percent of the corn crop. But what are the other uses?

corn 3We’re all ears: Where did all that corn go?Source: National Corn Growers Association, World of Corn 2010• Feed and residual, 42.5 percent. So, upwards of 40 percent of the corn crop goes into feedlots to fatten livestock for meat, milk, and eggs. The post-war explosion of cheap corn gave rise to an explosion of cheap meat. In 1950, Americans ate 144 pounds of meat per capita annually. In the 60 years since, corn prices fell steadily as output rose, and meat production shifted from diversified, pastured-based systems almost exclusively to corn-intensive, factory-style confinement systems. As a result, per-capita meat production has reached 222 pounds–a startling 54 percent increase since 1950.

The ill health effects of overconsumption of meat are well-established–they include “increased risk of heart disease and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer,” as well as a heightened risk of dying early, as the Washington Post reported last year.

Moreover, industrial livestock production is surely one of our filthiest industries–it tends to produce far more manure than can be absorbed into nearby fields as fertilizer, causing all manner of trouble downstream. And the confinement style of production facilitated by cheap corn has generated public-health threats ranging from MRSA to swine flu to antibiotic-resistant salmonella. Feedlot meat also has a tremendous greenhouse-gas footprint, despite industry tripe to the contrary.

In short, like HFCS, feedlot meat is a highly dubious product made possible by the explosion of cheap corn.

• Fuel ethanol, 32 percent. Groan. Do I really have to go through this argument again? To see why corn-based ethanol is a suspect product, please see here, here, here, and here.  Or read through Grist’s 2006 special series on biofuel, which remains largely relevant. Bonus: for an unholy intersection between ethanol and feedlot meat, go here.

• Exports, 15.7 percent. Ah, this is the bit that makes U.S. ag officials and agribiz chiefs crow about “feeding the world.” But dumping cheap, subsidized U.S. corn on foreign markets only leads to the global spread of questionable practices like turning corn into sweetener and meat. In the global south, the annual gusher of cheap U.S. corn undercuts domestic farms, eroding food security and prompting a flight from rural areas to cities. Mexico makes for an appalling case study. According to Tufts researcher Tim Wise:

Corn showed the highest losses [among subsidized U.S. crops entering the Mexican market]. Average dumping margins of 19% contributed to a 413% increase in U.S. exports and a 66% decline in real producer prices in Mexico from the early 1990s to 2005. The estimated cost to Mexican producers of dumping-level corn prices was $6.6 billion over the nine-year period, an average of $99 per hectare per year, or $38 per ton.

For a small-scale Mexican farmer, that’s enough to make the difference between earning a living off the land and having to go try to scratch out an existence in a Mexico City shantytown–or sneaking across the northern border for gainful employment.

So low-quality meat and sweetener, a shoddy alternative car fuel, an agrarian crisis visited upon our neighbor to the south … that’s more or less the corn crop. The 6 percent going to “other” use reflects mainly industrial-food ingredients: stuff like starches that end up in everything from ketchup to mac ‘n cheese. Another small fraction goes to extremely low-quality liquor.

This is what we’re getting out of 32 million hectares of mostly prime farmland and billions of dollars in annual subsidies? It’s time to start thinking about how to encourage more diversified, lower-input forms of agriculture. It’s not that we need to grow no corn; it’s just that we can’t afford to keep growing so damned much of it.