Tuesday, December 18, 2018

On Corn and Farm Land

You never know what random, amazing knowledge will appear before you in this day and age. It's hard to say if this benefit is enough to balance all the damage modernity brings... I can't weigh that right now, but I can say this information, put before me for free, is a revelation.

First, from SwiftOnSecurity, a treatise on corn:

...it has literally been years, maybe decades, since you ate any meal made without corn. I absolutely guarantee you every meal you have eaten in the last 365 days has been made with corn.
  • Did you eat something packaged in a paper bag? That’s lined with corn.
  • Did you eat something with citric acid? That’s not lemon. That’s corn.
  • Did you eat something with honey in it? It’s diluted with corn syrup.
  • Did you eat raw honey? Bees are fed corn syrup.
I am not joking about everything being made from corn

Cows eat corn, but milk isn’t made from corn, right? Correct. Except, what is milk fortified with? Vitamin D. How does Vitamin D get in milk? It’s soluble in vegetable oil then mixed in. What is the vegetable oil made from? Corn.

Bananas aren’t made from corn, right? Correct. How are bananas ripened? With ethylene gas. How is ethylene produced in the United States? From catalytic converters using ethanol. Where does ethanol come from in the United States? Corn.

I wish you could see the world the way I see the world.

Virtually all consumer vitamin capsules use active ingredients, stabilizers, or production stearates sourced from corn. Surfactants in shampoo and dishwashing liquid are often chemically processed with corn glucose. Cosmetics are often corn. (‘zea mays’ = maize)

You use corn to remove corn from your dishes. You take a shower and clean yourself with the help of corn. You coat yourself with corn.

Corn is applied to cardboard boxes during production. Table salt uses corn to help iodine stick to the particles. Windex uses 2-hexoxyethanol, which is made from corn.

Animals eat corn, but meat isn’t corn, right? Correct. How is bacteria controlled in meat cutting operations? Increasingly, by spraying lactic acid. Where does lactic acid come from? Fermenting glucose. Where does glucose come from? Often, corn syrup.

You live in a society whose every production industry is based around a government-subsidized chemical feedstock.

Corn is not a food. Corn is a platform.

More commentary on how rich corn is for weaving a narrative of the American century:

You’ve got government market subsidy, political weight of low-population states, energy insecurity, environmental issues, agribusiness consolidation, hyper-productivity despite decreasing labor, food basket dynamics in world wars, 20th century chemical revolution, obesity, etc.
If you want to know more about the spread of corn than you ever wanted to, I recommend @CornAllergyGirl. She has to basically custom-make a lot of her own food and stockpile it. But it’s not just food.

3D printing? One of two material options is PLA plastic, made from corn. Tattoos? Ink liquid base is probably corn. Frozen fish? Often glazed in a mixture of corn starch/corn syrup to prevent dehydration and oxidation, which polyunsaturated fats in fish are vulnerable to. It doesn't matter if your fish is fresh from Alaska, it's getting processed and dipped in corn from the American Midwest. Ranch dressing? Does that have corn in it? dextrose (corn)

Why does USA use corn syrup instead of sugar? It's by design. "Import quota for sugar that limits imports to keep the price as high as possible for American consumers." "US consumers and producers pay approximately three times the world price of sugar."

Some people have gotten the impression from this that I'm against corn. That's not the case. I'm interested because I love corn. It's incredible in every way. It's worth appreciating the innumerable ways cheap high-calorie polysaccharide can be used, past and present.
That thread was connected to this one by Dr. Sarah Taber:
Corn is a platform with both limitless purposes, and one purpose: to turn rural land into a dependable and infinitely fungible financial asset.

If you want to understand US agriculture, you gotta understand one thing: It's not even about making food. It's a real estate hustle.

Can I be honest for a second, as an ag person who's done most of their work in California and the South? Land in the Midwest ... isn't really good for much. Sure, the soil's real nice, but the growing season is too short for most globally-traded cash crops.

Coffee. Sugar. Chocolate. Cotton. Tobacco. Rice. Palm oil.

The Midwest is exactly the kind of giant, wet, low-population area you'd want for cash crops. Except most of the big-money ones are tropical, and the Midwest has a 3-6 month growing season. You're stuck with annual crops.

"Well what's wrong with wheat, flax, oats, rye, hemp, and other short-season cash crops?"

1) Hemp ain't been legal
2) We can't use an entire Midwest's worth of oats and rye
3) Wheat and flax grow nearly everywhere, including huge areas of arid US west. Too much competition to rely on.

Enter maize and soybeans. Here's what they bring to table:

1) Short-lived enough to make use of the Midwest growing season
2) Need lots of water—that cuts out competition from the US West
3) Humans can't eat them, but that's OK, they're just infinitely fungible starch and protein.

If you're just growing raw sources of starch and protein, you can handle market gluts by inventing a new use. That's harder to do with crops that make something less malleable like fiber, or (in case of wheat, oats, rye, and most grains) a mid-yield mix of starch and protein.

And boy do we get our market gluts on. Because for 3-6 months every year, the Midwest turns into a giant hot wet basin of plant growing power.

But: without a platform like corn and soybeans, hot wet plains are just hot wet plains. They're not a financial powerhouse. You couldn't, say, include farmland as a securitized asset in investment funds.

The Food Discourse(TM) really fixates on how corn is used after it's grown. "Oh my God! It's in everything!" I'm more interested in what that means for those who possess the land to grow it and what that means for our society. And @SwiftOnSecurity hit the nail on the head.

Part of the Food Discourse(TM)'s fascination with food manufacturing is that it's fairly recent. It feels new and foreign. And, you can see the size of the facilities and visualize the money that it takes to build and run them. It's a fairly new way to accumulate wealth. It's visible. And it fits with our "wealth is capital is manufacturing and Wall Street" mentality. So we fixate on it.

Meanwhile, most folks have no idea what the value of farmland is. Or that subsidies don't go to the people growing the corn—they go to the people who own the land it grows on. Most folks have no idea that the big hustle in food isn't food. It's real estate. That doesn't fit with our image of how wealth works in a capitalist society.

Capitalism is supposed to mean new, modern, and scary! Farmland is ancient and wholesome! Farming is our one connection to more wholesome times!


Farm landlords were grinding people to death for thousands of years before capitalism was ever invented. Real estate's always been the ideal asset. Can be used for food, minerals, or development—and you can collect rents pretty much infinitely with zero work. But thanks to our focus on "bad stuff in our economy = modern = capitalism = industry" and "agriculture = old = good," we rarely see farmland as being an asset that can be traded globally.


We're busy fretting about agribusiness and food processing, meanwhile real live land barons are out here collecting rent and subsidy checks on millions of acres and using it as low-risk ballast for their portfolios.

To be clear: Wall Street is part of this. So are good ol' boys.

Most rural counties are run by 2–3 families that quietly own a huge slice of the land. You want to know why rural areas are so fucked up? It ain't the coastal elites. It's the landlords right there in the county. Rural landlords might collect their rent checks directly from their serfs, I mean neighbors, in the county instead of a hedge fund office in Manhattan. But they've got the same job. Own land, futz around all day, profit.

Ever notice how most proposals to solve farm-related problems—not enough food, too much food, soil conservation, wildlife conservation, water shortages—all seem to boil down to "throw money at land owners"? Isn't that weird?

The philosophy behind conservation payments is sometimes people own farmland that's too fragile to farm. But not farming loses money! Therefore, we must pay them not to farm it! Is anybody asking why own "farmland" that can't be farmed in the first place?

This is a problem that could be solved a lot of different ways. Trusts, land buybacks, tax write-offs for donating to conservation, etc. These are all used to some extent. But the big federal programs are all built around sending landowners a reliable subsidy check every year.

So ... yeah. Sometimes rural land ownership is just an instrument for rich people to extort bribes from taxpayers. "Pay me or I'll ruin your water." And sometimes you just monetize it on the corn platform.

Either way, it's a huge asset class. In many ways it's more influential and politically powerful than the "industrial food" sector we've been taught to fear. But it's invisible, distant, and quiet, monetizing the earth in ways few of us understand.
Wow to all of that.

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