War has been linked to just about everything. The title of this article isn’t my thesis. In fact, it came from an article by Shea Dean, “Children of the Corn Syrup: America’s Penchant For War Has Thrown Our Country Into An Orwellian Obesity Dystopia, And Fructose Is Big Brother.” (The Believer, October 2003).
The title itself was laugh-out-loud funny. Well, it is if you’re a geek like I am. There are two things I love: dystopic stories and anything written about food policy. And here Mr. Dean combined the two! I had to read it.
The following is my summary of Mr. Dean’s article:
It is believed that we enter into wars with an eye toward oil, markets, or profits, but these reasons are too vague. Wars are entered into for bodies–physical bodies that produce and consume products provided by a handful of umbrella companies. Without health, there is no need for products; without food, there is no health. Hence, when aid is provided to avert starvation, it is often a pretext to expand the market share of U.S. business.
Before World War II, farms used to be small. Fields were sowed and reaped by people, or by small-scale machines. Farmers were caretakers of the earth. During the War, all that changed, and five million American farmers left to serve, leaving those remaining to pick up the slack. Productivity was a must, as wars are fought with food. Along with this incentive came revolutionary inventions from the military.
DDT, a chemical insecticide used to combat malaria overseas, made its way into the fields from cheap military surpluses. Gunpowder and nitrate fertilizer share many of the same ingredients. Aircraft was more available for crop-dusting. After the war, few farmers returned to their land, enabling the others who had since based their business around these inputs to swipe it up and increase their holdings. The bigger, the better. The more inputs, the greater yield.
Then the issue of diminishing returns reared its head. Suddenly a 500 percent increase in fertilizer only yielded 28 percent more corn. Worse yet, the extra product on the market drove prices down, and smaller farmers were less and less able to afford their inputs with their tiny profit margins.
By 1971, as farmers were reaching their breaking point, Earl Butz was appointed Secretary of Agriculture. Butz is infamous for his slogan, “Get big, or get out,” meaning, if a smaller farmer couldn’t handle it, then let the bigger guys take over. Butz pressured foreign countries to lower tariffs, to allow American agricultural surpluses to flood their markets. American farmers were told to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” convinced that sheer volume of product would open new markets.
Butz’ policies led to the worst soil erosion problems seen since the Dust Bowl. By the end, only a tiny number of giant corporations that controlled most of the farmland were able to afford the machinery, the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer to continue turning a profit. But even they were at risk–and so the government stepped in with subsidies, that is, “corporate welfare.” Suddenly, Americans could sell products cheaper than it cost to grow them!
Something still needed to be done with all that cheap corn, as opening foreign markets wasn’t enough. It became feed for livestock, thereby driving down the price of a hamburger. It became high fructose corn syrup, a miracle additive, which could be pumped into just about anything to make it sweeter, glossier, fresher-looking, longer-lasting. It also packs hidden calories, which makes for a fatter nation. It gets shunted toward the liver for break-down. The liver uses fructose to build triglycerides, which is associated with insulin resistance, that is, diabetes.
The problem? Not self-control. No. It is sheer abundance. Food is everywhere, laden with additives derived from cash crops. It makes for a toxic food environment. Everywhere you go, from your local grocery store to the vending machine, to the a gas station, to the doctor (free candy!), you find junk food. As the food supply grew, so did American permissiveness. The American College of Sports Medicine lowered its recommended exercise prescriptions; physical education programs in schools were waived or removed. While pro-health and smart-diet campaigns are abundant enough, they pale in comparison to what food companies spend promoting their products. Worse, the government does little to reverse the course of American health, lobbied by corporations ready to complain or cease funding the moment a policy cuts into their profits.
It’s a woeful situation. Thanks to Earl Butz’ effect on international tariffs, other countries are no longer able to refuse American products. It is impossible to compete with a country who can sell food cheaper than it costs to grow it. Farmers can no longer support their families through their land, and are migrating to factory work (a whole new arena of exploitation). When a nation can no longer afford to grow its own food, it loses its food sovereignty. Today, agricultural workers enjoy debt to their companies, and high rates of cancer from overexposure to agricultural inputs; pickers do not enjoy even the most rudimentary labor rights or compensation plans. Just as conflict diamonds garnered international attention, so should conventional food production. It’s conflict food. War food.