What’s So Bad About … Corn?

Simon Athearn starts his day at his family’s Morning Glory Farm by taking a bunch of bites out of raw corn. “Every single morning,” he says, “us and the crew are out in the field nibbling … You’ve got to test it to know what batch you’re in and what ripeness level to pick it.” 

Ask him about the best way to cook corn on the cob, and his voice takes on a tone of reverence. “I love this question,” he says. While he enjoys seawater-soaked corn cooked in its husk over a grill, his and his family’s favorite method is to steam the cobs in about an inch of water. Four to six minutes, he says, depending on the size of the ears. Other corn lovers swear by boiling, and still others prefer to cook it in a microwave oven. 

But although how to cook corn is a question that elicits plenty of strong opinions, it is far from the most contentious corn-related topic. “We hear the word corn, we think of our grandmother's garden, and corn on the cob, and that's all lovely,” says Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of Project Drawdown, a non-profit dedicated to advancing science-based solutions to climate change. “But when you get to the industrial scale, which corn really operates in, it's the single biggest crop in America. It covers roughly 100 million acres of land in this country, about the size of Montana. And hardly any of it is used for food.”

Corn as far as the eye can see

Take a summer drive anywhere in the Midwest and Great Plains (and beyond), and you will see corn. How did this crop come to dominate? Simple. Continue on your summer drive and the fields that aren’t covered in corn stalks are populated with cattle, chickens, and pigs — all of which eat corn. Stop for gas and guess what? You’re pumping corn into your tank in the form of ethanol. Pause for a stroll through your grocery store and the shelves are stocked with corn products — corn flour, cornmeal, corn chips, and — in just about everything — corn syrup. Even some of the bio-based packaging that holds these products is made from — that’s right — corn. 

As a crop, Foley says, corn is a crucial part of agriculture (and culture — more on that later). The problem isn’t corn per se, he explains, it’s the system — a system that is subsidized to the tune of $2.2 billion dollars annually, making corn the most highly subsidized crop in the country.

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And for all that money, Foley argues, corn doesn’t give Americans much that’s good for them. Because, remember, we’re not consuming most of that corn as, well, what we think of when we think of corn. 

Corn in your tank

In the 1970s, a U.S. agricultural company that was making its money producing high fructose corn syrup found itself with an excess of a byproduct known as ethanol. But this problem became an opportunity when the company, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), decided to market this ethanol as an additive to fuels, riding President Nixon’s Project Independence initiative, focused on creating an entirely domestic energy supply. ADM launched a campaign to get politicians to back them — a highly successful political campaign with the consequence (a half-century later) that forty percent of the corn grown in America goes straight into our gas tanks. “There's no environmental benefits at all,” Foley says. “In fact, net, it's probably worse for the environment in every conceivable way … the land it uses, the water it pollutes, the air quality it harms, and the fact it's not really carbon free.” A 2022 study funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy found that ethanol is likely at least twenty-four percent more carbon-intensive than gasoline “due to emissions resulting from land use changes to grow corn, along with processing and combustion.” In other words, we’d do better to burn pure petroleum than this so-called biofuel.

Our gas tanks account for forty percent of the corn grown in the U.S.; a similar amount — thirty-six percent, Foley reports — feeds our cows, pigs, and chickens. But it doesn’t feed them particularly efficiently. 

According to Donald Scavia, a professor of sustainability at the University of Michigan, writing in The Conversation, “This large-scale diversion of corn has raised prices, distorted the market, and had serious negative impacts on food choice and availability globally.”

What’s more, ethanol didn’t achieve any of its so-called goals, including energy independence. What it did achieve, Foley says, is increased revenues for a lot of large agriculture firms, land speculators, and politicians on both sides of the aisle. 

Want to opt out of burning ethanol? Too bad. Most gasoline in the country contains up to 10 percent of the additive, something that thrills corn farmers and dismays climate scientists. 

Our cattle are all ears

So, while our gas tanks account for forty percent of the corn grown in the U.S., a similar amount — thirty-six percent, Foley reports — feeds our cows, pigs, and chickens. But it doesn’t feed them particularly efficiently. It takes about thirty calories from corn, Foley says, to produce one calorie of boneless beef. And the cost of those cows to the planet is significant: UC Davis tells us that cows are the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. A 2018 livestock analysis — the largest to date, published in the journal Science — revealed that while meat and dairy provided just eighteen percent of the calories we consume, it used eighty-three percent of our farmland and contributed sixty percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Pigs and chickens have a lower climate impact than cows, but the study revealed that even the lowest impact meat, poultry, and dairy products caused more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetables. 

So, Foley says, “in a nutshell, corn uses more land, more water, more nutrients, more chemicals, and more subsidies to produce less good than anything I can really think of in America in the world of agriculture.” (But again, Foley makes clear he’s talking not about corn as the food, but about corn as the system.) 

Kernels of indigenous wisdom

Rebecca Webster has thought a lot about corn — so much so that she’s written an entire book about it. A member of the Oneida tribe and a professor at the University of Minnesota, Webster notes that the Oneida word for corn (“Yukwanénste,” which is also the name of her book) means “precious.” 

“Corn was a huge deal for our people,” Webster explains, noting that it’s estimated that before contact with Europeans, an indigenous diet consisted of sixty percent corn. She and her husband grow corn on Oneida territory in Wisconsin. “From that very first time of planting our corn,” Webster says, “it really took us on a different path. It connected us to our community here in Oneida as well as in New York and in Canada, where the Oneida people are originally from, to our relatives who are out East, it connected us back to our culture here at home, our language, our history.” Food, she says, “is a safe way back to reconnecting to those things that maybe our ancestors had to lay down in order to survive through colonization, assimilation, and removal.”

“Corn was a huge deal for our people …From that very first time of planting our corn it really took us on a different path … It connected us back to our culture here at home, our language, our history.”

– Rebecca Webster, Oneida tribe member

Like Foley, Webster makes clear that she differentiates her understanding of corn based on how it’s used. “We don't think of corn as a commodity, we think of corn as a relative. And it plays a significant role in our culture, in our ceremonies. And it's just something that has been with us since creation.”

Jennifer Randolph, a Wampanoag and Executive Director of Kinship Heals, an organization that works to address domestic violence on Martha’s Vineyard, says that corn, for native women, has always meant connection. Working in the garden was historically “a sisterhood,” says Randolph, and the way native women tended to the Earth. 

“You can’t just eat native corn,” she explains. It’s not the type of corn we think of when we think of sweet corn, and rendering it digestible requires a multi-step, labor-intensive process that removes the outer layer of the corn. “When you try to do it yourself,” Randolph says, “it’s miserable. And there’s no way you can grow enough and process enough to feed your family.” But, she says, when you do it together … “And that’s how we worked. We had community gardens, we did this together.” 

How sweet it is

At Morning Glory Farm on any August morning, Simon Athearn will gladly talk your ear off about corn as he walks amongst the stalks — no surprise given how much thought and energy has gone into the farm’s cherished crop. For one thing, Morning Glory eschews genetically engineered versions of corn — “unnecessary for a good corn,” Athearn says. For another, instead of the supersweet corn you’ll find in a supermarket, Morning Glory specializes in sugar-enhanced types. “The super sweet type is one of the branches of corn that has good sweetness and a long shelf capacity, so that it can ship across the country without losing too much flavor,” Athearn explains. “And it has a very thick pericarp — the skin over the kernel — therefore making it less prone to bruising since it will be machine harvested, machine packed, and then shipped in trailer trucks.” Customers, Athearn insists, will notice the difference when they taste Morning Glory farm’s milky sweet version (a promise that Vineyarders confirm as God’s honest truth. Bluedot’s Julia Cooper, for example, insists that Morning Glory has “ruined me for all other corns.”)  

Jonathan Foley, who hates corn as the system, remains a committed connoisseur of corn as a late-summer crop. “I’d love to have more farmers grow corn that actually became food,” he says. 

Foley, who hates corn as the system, remains a committed connoisseur of corn as a late-summer crop. “I’d love to have more farmers grow corn that actually became food,” he says. The son of New Englanders who had an organic garden, he notes that “Corn on the cob is the best kind of corn of all because it’s going right into your belly. It’s delicious and it’s wonderful.” But, he adds, “It has to be really fresh for it to taste great.  I feel like if I didn’t pick it myself a few hours ago, it doesn’t taste as good.” 

Just picked — literally — is how Simon Athearn eats his corn. “I eat far more of my yearly intake of corn raw,” he says of his early morning corn tasting. “Get your breakfast in,” he says, laughing. 

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Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett is a journalist and the Editorial Director of Bluedot, Inc. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and more. She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Virtuous Consumer, a book on living more sustainably. Leslie lives most of the year in Canada with her husband, three children, three dogs and three cats. She is building a home on Martha's Vineyard.
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