Back in the early 1900s, the U.S. government invested in an agriculture policy that aimed to promote production of those foods that could be easily stored or shipped to soldiers fighting in World War I, like corn and wheat. To make sure we had plenty of these grains, we decided to pay farmers to grow more of the crops we needed most—and consequently stop growing most other grains, vegetables or fruits. This practice is what we now know as subsidizing.
Because government money could be used to cover some of the costs of production, the price the consumer had to pay for these items fell. Of course, with this lower price came higher consumption. As demand grew, so did our production levels.
Today, 30 percent of our land base is being planted with corn. Even out of wartime, we have continued to subsidize corn and wheat production, adding canola and soybeans to the list, largely because beef, pork and chicken growers demand these crops be constantly available at the lowest possible price—which means meat producers can also be counted as recipients of subsidies.
As we produced more and more grain, our supplies eventually surpassed the demand. To help get rid of some of this overstock, we commissioned farmers and scientists to find new things to do with these stores. While farmers began feeding corn and wheat to animals that had never eaten these plants before—like cows and fish—scientists ingeniously found ways to convert these crops into a variety of different forms. Some experts estimate that corn derivative products exist in nearly 90 percent of all processed foods.
It might not look like corn on the outside, but many of the processed food items available to you, whether we're talking crackers, candy bars or soda, are made from corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup. In addition, many of those obscure terms you might not recognize on the ingredient label—maltodextrin, xanthan gum, saccharin, di-glycerides—are corn derivatives. Corn is also the main feed for most meat and poultry animals, so there's corn in that grilled chicken sandwich too. One striking example: Farmed fish are now being taught to eat corn for the first time ever! So not even your sushi is corn-free.
Today, we spend nearly $25 billion in subsidies to fund farmers of corn, wheat, soybean, canola, beef, pork, chicken and dairy. The result is that farmers can charge the consumer much less than the price it costs to produce these foods and make up the difference through government funding. This might sound like a good deal for us at first—we get something for cheaper than we should—but the reality is that it has completely distorted the position and predominance of these foods in our eating hierarchy because they are so much cheaper.
In fact, you actually do pay more for these foods than what the grocery store receipt says. Those subsidies are your tax dollars, after all. And the true cost of industrial agriculture is almost impossible to calculate because we have no enforceable way of quantifying how much producers should pay to offset the pollution their operations create or the long-term damage to human health from overconsumption of certain foods and exposure to chemicals, hormones and antibiotics used in some cases.