Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why Burgers Grow on Stalks

Unfortunately last night's meeting did not feature fisticuffs. I did get home early enough to make a dent in my Netflix queue, and feel compelled to recommend King Corn, a smart, funny, engaging documentary about how our food is produced. While driving across the country, two friends realize that all the corn grown in Iowa is not edible sweet corn but instead the beginnings of processed food. They decide to rent an acre, move to Iowa to farm it, and follow their corn into the food chain.

You won't learn anything from the film that you don't already know from the work of Michael Pollan. Our bodies are mainly corn. When we eat meat we're eating corn, because the cows have been confined on feedlots and quickly fattened with cheap corn. Drink a soda, or eat cookies or candy, and you're consuming corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup. By attempting to follow their crop from the field to the table the filmmakers show exactly how and why this is the case. Along the way, they give us the history of our current Farm Bill and the rationale behind farm subsidies that pay farmers to produce more and more corn, more corn than can be eaten fresh so by necessity more and more corn that, in its natural state, is inedible. We also watch them attempt to taste their crop, turn part of their yield into homemade high fructose corn syryp, and visit one of the feedlots that is the destination for about a third of their acre's bounty.

Most intresting is their simple illustration of the economics that leads to agribusiness. Once they arrive in Iowa, they sign up for government subsidies for their acre. That year's basic subsidy is $28/acre, paid half before planting and half after the harvest. Their yield was about 180 bushels, which where selling for about $1.58/bushel at harvest. After expenses, they were around $19 in the red for their acre. The basic subsidy offset this loss; add in additional government incentives (the amount of which they didn't explain - I'm making a guess here) and the profit was maybe $12 an acre. This is why the family farm can't sustain itself. The price of equipment isn't part of this formula, only the price of fertilizer, herbicide, and seed. In order to make barely enough to lease and service the large tractors needed for this kind of farming one would have to farm at least 1,000 acres, although bringing in $120,000 a year might not be enough. Farms must get bigger and bigger, with greater and greater yields, in order to be profitable.

The only real solution would be a change in our subsidy policy, to go back to subsidizing controlled yields in order to keep the price of grain high rather than encouraging overproduction and therefore cheap grain. On the other hand, because of our current farm policy, the price of food is cheaper than it's ever been. Remember when steak was a luxury? Cheap corn makes beef affordable, and makes the dollar menu possible.

Rent the film and see all this for yourself. In addition to being thought-provoking, it has a killer soundtrack and is beautifully shot and edited. You'll be glad you saw it.

1 comment:

J. SPIKE ROGAN said...

added to my netflix.

I'm working on a post on Body of War, I watched it finally the other day.