Understanding The Politics Of Corn Farming In Illinois And Its Impact On Human Health

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Corn is an ubiquitous crop that is described to be a "lucrative and heavily-subsidized" crop. One can see large swathes of farmland containing corn crops as they drive through the sparsely populated rural areas of Midwestern USA, which I saw as I traversed the I-57 between Chicago and Champaign, IL.

While these subsidies are targeted at helping corn farmers to reduce the financial risks involved in changing demand patterns, weather anomalies or even just commodities brokers, it can be said that farmers would be deriving 40% of their net income (in 2020) directly from governmental subsidies.

That's not even taking into consideration how much their harvests would sell for. That's insane.

But we'd first have to go back to 1933 to see the origin of these subsidies.

The New Deal and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 saw the implementation of subsidies for supporting farmers in agricultural businesses.

However, there was constant political lobbying to keep the subsidies in place, and the value of the subsidies grew as time passed, such that the subsidies became an extremely lucrative cash cow that big farmers were not likely to let go off that easily. Corn, of course, was a commodity crop that enjoyed firm political backing because of its geographical concentration in a small number of states (such as Illinois).

And of course, therein lies a problem:

If I'm in the farming business for the purpose of getting the subsidies, what can I then do with my crops?

It's not so much of a surprise, then, that corn-based products such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be sold for lower prices than granulated sugar in the US.

It's also not much of a surprise, then, that subsidized plant-based oils such as soybean oil and corn oil would feature prominently in the cooking oil markets too.

But that political landscape doesn't make it much better for human health in any way.

While HFCS is a cheaper sweetener than granulated sugar, there are also many scientific reasons that make it extremely good for business. Jacqueline B. Marcus, a food and nutrition consultant, writes in the book Culinary Nutrition that:

HFCS helps to keep foods fresh, lowers the freezing point, retains moisture in bran cereals and breakfast bars, enhances fruit and spice flavors, promotes surface browning, and provides fermentability.

But at the same time, an overconsumption of fructose can lead into problems with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

So while it's good for business, it isn't necessarily good for human health.

Neither are the unsaturated vegetable oils any better because of the dangers of lipid peroxidation that could release many different reactive by-products to wreak havoc on the biochemical homeostasis in the human body.

But one thing was determined in surveys that researchers made - people who were consuming the most of these subsidized foods in their diet were found to have:

A 41 percent greater risk of belly fat, 37 percent high risk of obesity, 34 percent higher risk for elevated inflammation, and 14 percent higher risk of abnormal cholesterol.

The question is, who are these people?

While it can be argued that the rich are likely to be fatter and more unhealthy, the poor are much more likely to be affected by this problem.

Because when my budget is tight, I would have to go for the cheaper foods - which happen to be subsidized, of course.

To compound that issue, HFCS can be addictive and an overconsumption of HFCS can result in metabolic dysregulation. That means I would end up gravitating towards more of these foods - because (i) it is budget friendly and (ii) I like eating it.

In fast food restaurants all around the USA, free-flow fountain drinks (of course, sweetened with HFCS) are readily available. As a poor student, I would have taken 2-3 refills for each trip I made to a fast food restaurant, though I rarely did. Gallon jugs of $1.99 sweet tea were a bigger killer for me (and of course, again, sweetened by HFCS).

Now, fast food restaurants thrive in areas that have food insecurity, at least in the USA - they're meant for the poor people, who are not only financially not well off but time-poor as they juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. Weight gain would be the last thing on their mind, survival is much more important.

And when we actually do combine all these factors together, we'd come to a surprising conclusion that part of the obesity issue in the USA has its roots firmly entrenched within a political situation that is almost unlikely to be changed, if ever - there is too much political backing on that.

The only way to actually address the obesity issue would be to reduce one's consumption of these products, but that is of course much easier said than it is done!

Because both the harvesters and the processed food manufacturers want to protect their profits — they’d definitely produce more emotionally attractive advertisements to keep consumers coming back for more and maintain a steady demand for their products.

To further complicate the issue, we'd have to understand that for every subsidized food that we're putting into our stomachs, we'd be crowding out space in our diet that could otherwise be used for feeding ourselves with nutritious foods - but that's another story on its own altogether!

Joel Yong, Ph.D., is a biochemical engineer/scientist, an educator and a writer. He has authored 5 ebooks (available on Amazon.com in Kindle format) and co-authored 6 journal articles in internationally peer-reviewed scientific journals. His main focus is on crafting strategies to support optimal biochemical functions in the human body at https://thethinkingscientist.substack.com.

This article was originally published in Medium.

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