April 6, 2010

What to Do with All This Darned Corn

Expanding on the previous blog about corn...

For all of those who don't know, corn is synonymous with the USA. Due to an accident of geography, culture, and history, the entire middle 50% of our nation is essentially one giant food factory.

In fact, they really should merge everything from South Dakota to Oklahoma together into one big super-state called "The Federal Food Factory." (I exclude the State of the Godforsaken Heckhole of North Dakota since, as we all know, vegetation is impossible in this place).

But as a result of this, we have way too much corn, and have had way too much for at least 60 years. If we let the market have its way and took away all of the Ag Bills and regulation and aid and subsidies, corn would essentially have no value because there's so much of it and agriculture without market regulation is almost perfectly competitive, or at least about as close as we can get. We literally couldn't shovel it out of our country fast enough; we already give away tons and tons and tons of it and still have too much.

So instead of letting the market work, the US has engaged in some of the most blatant abuses of the free market ever seen. We tried paying farmers to not grow anything in the '50's. The more they did not grow, the more money they got. That worked for a while.

Then in the '70's we slapped barely-legal tariffs on sugar that border on criminal (and certainly violate the WTO). We did this because Big Ag started inventing new uses for the corn and discovered that through a complex process it can be distilled into concentrated fructose, which is supposedly "chemically the same as sugar!" But to make it economically viable, we had to make sugar more expensive by a significant margin. So we did.

Then in the 90's all the rage was corn-based ethanol. Why not use our huge surpluses to help save the environment!

Except that all these things have caused more harm than good. There's a mountain of evidence that links America's unique obesity problem is due primarily to the fact that we're the only nation in the world to use HFCS to sweeten everything instead of sucrose. You see, the body can't process fructose exactly the same way it can sucrose, and the result is that it wreaks havoc in the long term on the body's ability to regulate and produce insulin.

This is why people of similar racial and ethnic makeup in Europe consume literally just as much or more calories, fat, cholesterol, sweets, etc. on average as Americans, and yet aren't obese and don't have diabetes.

And corn-based ethanol is stupid. It requires huge amounts of petroleum to actually process the stuff, and it takes like 10 times more of the stuff to yield the same amount of energy as a gallon of gas (or an equivalent amount of sugar-based ethanol, which actually is efficient).

Luckily the government backed away from its huge initiative for corn-based ethanol. But still, everything we eat is loaded with HFCS. And if it's not HFCS, it's xanthia gum, sorbitol, and all sorts of funny-sounding chemicals that we throw in our food that come from corn in some way.

So.... I was thinking.


Here's my proposal:

1) Ban HFCS and many other corn-derived food ingredients. And remove all tariffs on sugar.

2) Abandon corn-based ethanol for any applications in New Energy due to its gross inefficiency.

3) When the farmers all come to Washington to burn down and take over the government, have a mild-mannered spokesman come meet them and inform them that not only can they keep growing corn, but that they should grow more corn. They should go and repopulate North Dakota and use that for corn too (perhaps by first constructing a giant dome over the state to make it habitable). And they can even keep many of the price controls and regulations that help keep them in business!

Every day Americans discard thousands of tons of non-biodegradable plastic bags and soft packaging plastics. In the process of touching these bags they have exposed themselves to estradiol, a chemical that binds to the same receptors as estrogen and has thus resulted in a measurable and significant feminization of men in first-world nations.

These plastics blow around and pollute rivers, streams, and landfills, and will over the course of thousands of years leak toxic chemicals into the environment as they slowly break down (unless we recycle them, which is a separate note).

But..... recently scientists actually stumbled onto a use for corn that makes a lot of sense: plastics. It is possible to create plastics out of corn.... that biodegrade in about 14 weeks and don't (at least as far as I know) use estradiol as an additive. I'm not sure how efficient the process is, but I have to imagine that the net benefit to the environment would far outweigh the negatives of even a very inefficient process of corn-based plastics creation.

4) Start regulating and phasing out most uses of soft plastics and replace them with corn-based alternatives, just like we did with CFC's. Eventually, make many of these plastics illegal.

It seems Pareto-optimal to me. American farmers can keep growing corn until it's coming out of their ears. We can curtail significantly exposure to chemicals that have feminized men. And we can save the environment. And countries could sell sugar to us again at profitable rates, thus improving the economies of many sugar-producing, poor nations.

And best of all, it seems like Hayek et. al. would approve as well.


Leslie said...

Unfortunately, as you noted for ethanol, to make corn plastics it takes more fossil fuels than a regular plastic. Many use GMO's. Also there are only 100 locations in the US where corn plastics can be disposed of properly so they can break down- commercial and municipal composts. So they end up in landfills where they will take 400-500 yrs to break down.A major food company went chapter 11 last yr, not because of the recession, but because of the high cost of feed stock. We have now reached 1 Billion people going hungry at night around the world. We can't feed our people. Corn should be for food , not plastic.

Annette Mullen said...

Here's an idea...Why don't we leave the corn farmers alone to do what they will with their corn. Remove the tariff on sugar, stop paying farmers to do nothing, and remove regulation. It's a pretty good guarantee that if farmers can't sell their corn, due to low demand, they will find something else to plant. If they can sell their corn (to someone other than the government) then what is the problem, consumers are getting what they want. And isn't that the point after all...