Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma does an admirable job of laying out exactly what's up with corn production in the United States, how it started, how it was shaped by government policy, where we are now. Pollan also has a few essays on his website that reveal a bit more about what's become the "industrial corn complex". The United States produces over 40% of the world's corn. Our domestic budget includes $9 Billion in corn subsidies and we institute a tariff of $.54 a gallon on foreign ethanol.
Why did High Fructose Corn Syrup replace other sweeteners? Surplus corn. What are livestock eating instead of grazing on grasses the way ruminants should? Surplus corn. Growing corn is so important to American agribusiness that corn was among the first genetically altered foods and big companies that I associate with chemicals (Dow? Dupont?) have patents on their particular corn's DNA. Multinational conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland benefit from massive subsidies and government incentives. Individual small farmers, not so much. Shoot, it's even being proposed that America's foreign aid to Malawi (a country that is awash in corn that it grows but can't sell) take the form of America's surplus corn.
In the same way that we're feeling the pinch where our cities have been designed around the premise of cheap gas and unrestricted automobile mobility, we're feeling the impact of agriculture and a food supply based on the premise of cheap, plentiful corn. Those same gas prices that are hurting folks directly at the gas pump are driving up the cost of corn, as producers struggle to produce more ethanol and other biofuel options. There are a bunch of people who are convinced that corn ethanol is a bad idea and are preparing for a replay of the 1980s farm crisis.
I don't know how America's corn crisis is going to play out. Congress has a chance to affect the direction of things with the 2007 Farm Bill. I do find that these sorts of questions, these large and troubling problems, continue to reinforce my focus on local, sustainable, environmentally responsible, ethically produced foods. I shopped the farmer's market yesterday and picked up the third of my weekly deliveries from our CSA today. I had a bunch of baby turnips for dinner tonight: delicious, local, fresh and nothing I would normally bother to eat. Those turnips (and their accompanying greens) helped me reach my food goals today in spectacular fashion! I hit my fiber goal, my calcium goal, and made it halfway to my iron intake goal (which, now that I'm coming closer to my fiber goal on a regular basis, is my biggest challenge area). Right now, I feel like that's about as much as I can focus on.