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Corn as a Health Issue

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By George F. Will
Sunday, March 8, 2009

We're from I-o-way, I-o-way,

State of all the land

Joy on ev'ry hand . . .

That's where the tall corn grows.

-- Iowa's unofficial song

Tom Vilsack, Iowa's former governor, calls his "the most important department in government," noting that the Agriculture Department serves education through school nutrition programs and serves diplomacy by trying to wean Afghanistan from a poppy-based (meaning heroin-based) economy. But Vilsack's department matters most because of the health costs of the American diet. If Michael Pollan is right, the problem is rooted in politics and, in a sense, Iowa.

Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food," says that after World War II, the government had a huge surplus of ammonium nitrate, an ingredient of explosives -- and fertilizer. Furthermore, pesticides could be made from ingredients of poison gases. Since 1945, the food supply has increased faster than America's population -- faster even than Americans can increase their feasting.

Agricultural commodity prices generally fall. But since a rare surge in food prices gave the Nixon administration a political scare, government policy, expressed in commodity subsidies, has been, Pollan writes, to sell "large quantities of calories as cheaply as possible," especially calories coming from corn.

"All flesh is grass" says the scripture. Much of the too-ample flesh of Americans (three of five are overweight; one in five is obese) comes from corn, which is a grass. A quarter of the 45,000 items in the average supermarket contain processed corn. Fossil fuels are involved in planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting and processing the corn. America's food industry uses about as much petroleum as America's automobiles do.

During World War II, when meat, dairy products and sugar were scarce, heart disease plummeted. It rebounded when rationing ended. "When you adjust for age," Pollan writes, "rates of chronic diseases like cancer and type 2 diabetes are considerably higher today than they were in 1900." Type 2 diabetes -- a strange epidemic: one without a virus, bacteria or other microbe -- was called adult-onset diabetes until children began getting it. Now it is a $100 billion-a-year consequence of, among other things, obesity related to a corn-based diet, which is partly because steaks and chops have pushed plants off the plate.


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