On Star Trek: The Next Generation, crew members get their food from microwave-like dispensers in their bedrooms called "Replicators." They walk up and mumble something and a lovely beef Wellington sparkles into existence. It's the ultimate vending machine, and nothing ever costs a dime.
Here in the 21st century, a fistful of change can buy you several thousand calories in whatever shape you like: a cylinder of cookies, a box of frozen hamburger patties or a canister of grape soda. Cheap and abundant food isn't magic to the average consumer; it seems natural, and is usually as dependable as the flow of gasoline from the pump.
As the 2007 Farm Bill wanders toward the Senate floor, however, America watches food prices continue to rise. Food and beverage prices have increased an average of four percent over the past year, and show few signs of going back down. Rising fuel costs are undoubtedly making plastic packaging and transportation more expensive, but a more popular scapegoat is new ethanol production. With corn in high demand, 25 cents no longer buys you a Little Debbie brownie.
What's a country to do when its food is made out of the same stuff that drives our cars?
Ricardo Salvador, formerly an agronomist at Iowa State University, points out that the creators of Star Trek did their homework; at the bottom of The Enterprise, the story goes, is an enormous tank filled with goo -- the raw material for every food that pops out of the Replicator. For the American food system, Salvador says, that goo is corn.
Since the early 1970s, when former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz's Farm Bill encouraged farmers to plant crops "fence row to fence row," a thickening stream of corn has flowed from the Midwest. For food processors, this stream of cheap corn comes mainly in the form of the ultimate food ingredient: high fructose corn syrup. Shipped by rail and unloaded by hose, it has become a government-subsidized intravenous tube for America's sweet tooth.
Cheap corn gave us the cheap hamburger, as well. Corn, a high-starch feed, fast-fattens cattle; it's now the main ingredient in the bovine feedlot diet. Americans have a weak-spot for corn-fed beef, which has as much as five times saturated fat as grass-fed beef. In fact, if you were born in the last thirty years in America, chances are you've only ever eaten corn-fed beef. So it goes: the seemingly diverse foods in the supermarket -- can of soda, disc of beef -- have common ancestors in the Corn Belt.
Star Trek's Replicator is an understandably appealing idea. As a kid I would have traded my little sister for a machine that would make hamburgers appear from thin air in my bedroom. But are consumers benefiting from the corn kingdom? Obesity rates are obscenely high, and one in three kids born in 2000 is expected to develop Type-II diabetes. It would be absurd to lay the blame solely with corn, but the nation's waistline problems are undoubtedly linked to what we're gulping down at the local fast food joint. And most of that stuff, despite all the shapes and colors it comes in, is made out of the same varietal of goo -- yellow dent #2 corn.
Corn will be a big player in this year's Farm Bill, because everybody wants it -- the food industry for syrups and meats, and the ethanol industry for fuel. Is either a great use of our tax dollars? In the past decade, over $50 billion in government subsidies has been shelled out to promote corn production. Corn-based ethanol has its problems, but corn-based fast food is not exactly a healthful alternative. With food prices on the rise, now is the time to wonder what we're paying for -- at the cash register and with our tax dollars.
As author Michael Pollan points out, the Farm Bill should really be called the Food Bill. What do we as taxpayers want to order for dinner? Commodity corn isn't going away any time soon, but it's time to imagine a more diversified food supply. Measures that support new farmers and ranchers, promote diversified family farms, and bolster research for sustainable agriculture are potential harbingers of true diversity.
It's time, in other words, to think outside the goo.