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By Robert Rapier on Jul 28, 2009 with no responses

King Corn and Big Oil

Over the weekend, I watched the documentary King Corn. It was released in October 2007, but I just now got around to watching it online at Netflix. The premise is that a pair of college friends from the East Coast wanted to learn more about where our food comes from. When they learn about the importance of corn in our food supply, they move to Iowa and decide to grow an acre of corn over a growing season in order to better understand its role in the food chain.

As the movie progresses, U.S. farm policy with respect to corn is explored. It struck me during the movie that U.S. farm policy has many parallels to U.S. energy policy. Both systems have been set up with the goal of providing the cheapest prices to consumers. Both Big Oil and Big Ag work within the systems that have been created, but there are many negative consequences of these systems. I am grappling with the trade-offs.

On the one hand, the movie made a point that I often hear in relation to the oil industry: Consumers are now spending less of their disposable income on food (or energy) than they have in decades. So the consumer benefits from having extra money to spend on other things. But that also means that less money is flowing to the farmers, which drives vicious cost-cutting and has decreased the viability of the small family farm.

Cheap food and cheap energy also lower the financial penalty to consumers for over-consumption. Cheap, subsidized corn has led to cheap corn sweeteners, which can be found today in many of our foods. The rise of obesity and diabetes in the U.S. has been linked to the rise of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in our diets, which can be traced back to a farm policy that encourages over-production of certain crops. (I have to admit, if the choice is high fructose corn syrup or ethanol, I will choose ethanol).

King Corn implicates former President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz as the man responsible for sending us down this path of industrialized agriculture with a radical rewriting of U.S. farm policy in the early 1970′s. (For more details on Butz’s legacy, see A reflection on the lasting legacy of 1970s USDA Secretary Earl Butz by Tom Philpott).

Of course people are responsible for the choices they make. The government can’t be everyone’s mother. But they do put policies in place that influence choices. It is easy for me to choose not to over-consume if I can’t afford to do so. There is a reason most of us don’t eat lobster twice a week, and it isn’t because we don’t like lobster. But the calories from HFCS are much cheaper, so food dollars of those whose incomes are stretched gravitate in that direction.

Thus, I grapple with the dilemma of whether it is better that consumers spend more disposable income on food and energy in order to limit consumption. I don’t want to see people starving, but I also don’t want to see people dying from diabetes. The annual costs attributed to obesity in America have been estimated to be $100 billion, and the cost of diabetes at over $200 billion. That is $1,000 per year for every man, woman, and child in the country – and a loss of the quality of life for those afflicted. Those costs are at least partially attributable to the policies that have led to over-production of food.

I am both the product of an American farm, and a former employee of Big Oil. These experiences have shaped my views on and my interest in our respective agriculture and energy policies. I think these policies over the past few decades have led us to an unfortunate place: Fat, diabetic, and with a level of dependence of foreign oil that threatens to bankrupt the country. Further, there are entrenched lobbies that spend lots of money to maintain the status quo.

I certainly don’t blame the farmer for this. As one man said during the movie “I will produce what consumers demand. If they demand (leaner) grass-fed beef over corn-fed beef, that’s what I will produce.” That’s the same reason oil companies produce gasoline and car companies have produce SUVs.

But somehow we have to change what consumers demand before it kills us all.