monopoly seed

I have one day left of being hfcs-free, and I haven’t decided what to do after it’s done. But, I do have time for one more topic before my month is up. I didn’t get to as much as I would have liked, but I did get the big ones out of the way, which was enough research for me.

But the last topic of the month addresses Monsanto, one of the largest seed companies in the US. I actually didn’t hear about this on “King Corn”; I heard about it on “Food Inc.”. If you are able to see that one, I would recommend that over “King Corn” (although I’d say watch both, but if you’ve only got time for one, see “Food Inc.”). And this lesson is going to be short and sweet because what’s going on is so simple, it doesn’t require much explanation.

In 1996, Monsanto was able to genetically modify seed corn to be “Round-up Ready”, so farmers could buy the seed, plant it, then spray regular round-up, and everything but the planted seed would die. This is SO EASY I can see how if I were a farmer, it would be so incredibly tempting and easy to do.

But here’s the kicker: the gene that makes the seed round-up ready is patented, so farmers can’t save their seed from year to year; they need to buy new seed every year from Monsanto. But the ease of this is so ridiculous, Monsanto has easily gained a huge market share of seed. “Food Inc.” said that Monsanto went from a 2% market share in 1996 to a 90% market share currently. Now, Monsanto is refuting this, as you can read on this page, but I read their “truth”, and it really doesn’t debunk the numbers. I think they’re just trying to sound like they’re not monopolizing the market when in fact they are.

That aside, farmers can buy different seed from different companies, but Monsanto has this nasty habit of going after these farmers to test their seed because of cross-pollination. If you’re the only farmer on the block planting organic seed so you can save your seed, and every other one is using Monsanto seed, chances are that your corn is going to have traces of that patented gene because that’s what corn does.

Then, you get sued by Monsanto for royalties.

Not only that, but the guys who have seed shaking machines are getting sued. Not their seed, not their business – all they do is shake the seed farmers bring them to prepare it for next year’s planting – and they get a big ol’ subpoena from Monsanto. (From Food Inc.)

While enterprising, and easy, and patented, farmers are arguing that the other 50,000 genes in this Round-up Ready seed gives them a right to save seed (which, they have a point).

This issue not only is a monopoly issue, but is rife with problems surrounding genetically modified food (and patenting genes*), which I’m not going to delve into at the moment, but from the hold that Monsanto has on the seed market, you can understand.

So no wonder farmers are buying this seed: easy, but also if you don’t, it carries the risk of being sued by Monsanto for copious sums, and then there’s the end of another small farmer. Nice, Monsanto.

*Seriously: did you know that the gene inside your body that indicates if you have high risk of breast cancer (BRCA gene) is patented?? Of course, by the only company in the US who is able to test to see if you have this high-risk gene. Nice.

ethanol ≠ green

How ingrained have we a society been with the idea that going ethanol is going green? We’re in pretty deep. Too deep. I used to be a supporter of ethanol, but having learned myself, I realized ethanol is not that great, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.

First, the government’s national commission on energy policy is calling for a 400% increase in the use of biofuels (see: corn ethanol [see: US farmer lobbyists]) by 2022. Flex fuel cars are in full production (mostly huge, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs from what I can see) and there is an ethanol pump at almost every gas station in this town. Fuel runs about 30¢ cheaper than the regular stuff (but…subsidies make it this cheap).

As for the carbon output of ethanol, it’s supposedly “carbon neutral”, meaning that because it’s renewable, the carbon it outputs will be sucked right back up by the corn we’re growing to make more ethanol, a fine and dandy circular method, if not for some pesky details we’ll get to below.

In Minnesota, there are 14 ethanol plants and 20% of the corn production goes to ethanol production. MN is one of three states required to blend ethanol with gas (Hawaii and Missouri being the other two). In 2005, the E-20 bill passed, which mandates by 2013 a mix of 20% ethanol in all gasoline sold in the state. This is set to expire at the end of this year if “Minnesota is not granted federal approval to use E-20 gasoline blends”. This in turn will pump money into the local economy and provide new jobs, etc. etc.

Which would be great if MN was sitting on an unending supply of freshwater. …

Because one gallon of ethanol requires 1700 gallons of water to produce.

1700 gallons of water.

For one gallon of ethanol.

Potable water isn’t endless. And it’s one thing everybody cares about. Everybody on this planet needs water to survive. And we’re pissing away 1700 gallons of it to make 1 gallon of ethanol? And this is GREEN?

Not to mention the carbon spewed out when we grow corn and during the production of ethanol, the pesticides, and the fact that rainforests are destroyed to grown corn (well, not in MN). There are the production pollutants of drilling for oil and the production, but there is still that PESKY water issue. Estimated water used per gallon of gasoline? 1.5-2.5.

Add in the fact that corn ethanol is not that great of a fuel, as it provides 34% less energy than oil-based gas. Flex-fuel cars are tuned to give better power and torque output (why can’t we do this for REAGULAR cars?) and so you get between 20-30% less fuel efficiency than oil-based gas. Hmmm. does the price difference make up for the miles you’re losing? Based on the $2.60 gas and $2.30 e85 in this locale, nope. E85 would need to be $2.08 at most. And given that ethanol would be MORE than your regular gas without subsidies, ethanol seems to be a losing battle.

Except if we could grow sugarcane (which we really can’t on a large scale). In Brazil, sugarcane ethanol is a thriving industry, but the difference is that sugarcane gets more than 50% more ethanol out of an acre of land than corn. Also, sugarcane is 5-6 times more efficient as a biofuel than corn. Corn is not a good biofuel. But corn is this country’s cash crop.

So now you’re all thinking I’m turning into a carbon-spewing, gas-loving, SUV-driving hypocrite. NO. We need an alternative, desperately. But guess what? Corn isn’t it. There have to be other alternatives out there that are more efficient, wreak less havoc on the environment while making it, and use LESS THAN 1700 GALLONS OF WATER while producing a gallon. Heck, there ARE better alternatives (sugarcane). But since corn has a stronghold on this country, we’re not going to be on friendly terms with Brazil on that anytime soon. Yes, oil is limited, and we need renewable energy sources, but not at the cost of our water supply.

cash crop

In the 1930s there was this little ol’ thing called the new deal, which was product of the great depression, and a part of which was the agricultural adjustment act. This paid farmers to leave parts of their fields fallow so as to raise the price of crops. (Not coincidentally, this was also following the dust bowl, where farmers had so over-farmed their fields that, when combined with drought, practically eliminated topsoil.) This was pretty much the norm until the 1970s, when the secretary of agriculture Earl Butz came in with a whole new idea: “get big or get out.”

Now farmers were encouraged to plant from fencepost to fencepost and leave no part of their fields fallow. Not only that, Butz also encouraged big farms and consolidation. This “farm bill” has been pretty much held to the same standard for the past 40 years. The most recent bill was passed in 2008, and contains the following (via CRS report for congress, order cod rs22131):

1. Commodity programs
2. Conservation
3. Trade
4. Nutrition
5. Credit
6. Rural development
7. Research
8. Forestry
9. Energy
10. Horticulture and organic agriculture
11. Livestock
12. Crop insurance and disaster assistance programs
13. Commodity futures
14. Miscellaneous
15. Trade and tax provision

Some interesting things to pull out of here: the commodity programs eliminate benefits to farmers with less than 10 acres (bigger is better). There is a mandated 85% market share for US sugar producers (not corn related, but I thought it was very relevant). The farm bill is where the food stamp program is hidden in our country’s budget (under nutrition). (I find it very weird that the food stamp program is nestled in with a bill that, in theory, reduces that eligibility limit for food stamps…) ethanol production is promoted through the energy section of this, and I’m not sold on the viability of ethanol (but that’s another blog post).

As for the numbers, the farm bill for 2008-2012 is estimated at a total of $284 billion. 14% is for commodity crops, 67% goes to nutrition programs (food stamps), 9% for conservation and 8% to crop insurance. The remaining 2% goes to the rest of the provisions in the bill.

So how does a subsidy work? It guarantees a price floor on a crop and farmers are paid an extra 52¢ per bushel. For example only, say the price floor on corn is $3.71/bushel. Farmers will always get that price plus 52¢. If the price falls below $3.71, farmers get paid the difference. So, corn is selling for $3.65; the farmer gets 58¢ a bushel.

Now where it gets sticky is when prices go below the price floor. The loan deficiency payment is the difference that is paid when prices are lower, and it’s getting to the point where farmers are wishing for lower prices to cash in on government (see: OUR) cash. According to a “Washington post” article (Dan Morgan, July 3, 2006), a farmer named Richardson walked into the local USDA office and proved he owned and harvested a crop. He applied for the deficiency payment based on this only. Since Richardson was able to store his grain, he got his cake and ate it too. He got the LDP, and waited for prices to go up, then cashed in on the high corn prices.

Nice, huh?

So you can see why I am kinda down on corn at the moment.

It’s not just corn, but corn is the biggie. Here is how the subsidies are broken down:

Corn: 35%
Cotton: 18%
Wheat: 14%
Rice: 14%
Soybeans: 8%
Dairy: 4%
Peanuts: 3%
Sugar: 1%
Tobacco: .2%
Wool: .1%

And some other crops that are unsubstantial. For comparison’s sake, there are 400,000 corn farms in the US. There are 350,000 soybean farms. Soybeans and corn take up the same amount of acreage in the US. Corn produced 10 billion bushels and soybeans almost 3 billion. The US produced 32 million tons of sugar beet sugar and 28 million tons of sugarcane sugar. I couldn’t find the number of farmers, but a bushel weighs 56 lbs., so let’s figure there were 280 million tons of corn produced and 60 million tons of sugar. Divided out, that’s $10.14/ton of corn and $1/ton of sugar. (Why is this relevant? because that’s why corn is so CHEAP and sugar is so EXPENSIVE to you as a consumer.) I couldn’t find the number of sugar farmers in the US; otherwise I would have figured this out per farmer.

So where does your corn go?

42.5% goes to feed livestock for your protein needs. 32% goes to ethanol (again, another whole post). 15.7% is exported, 6.2% goes to other, and a whole whopping 3.5% goes to high fructose corn syrup.

And right now you’re wondering, Kate! Why on earth are boycotting HFCS? This seems really ridiculous to make a huge deal out of HFCS when you should really stop eating beef and driving.

Oh, but these are just part of the problem, and will definitely get their own posts. Not to mention the list of issues with crop subsidies: discouraging fallow fields and crop rotation; world prices and developing countries’ place in agriculture; small farms getting bought out and consolidated into large, corporate farms; monopolies in seed development and post-production. Add in cattle feedlots, other animal production, and most of all ethanol, and there will be PLENTY to stew about by the time may is done and over with.

But yeah, why the fascination with HFCS? I think it’s because I, as a lone consumer (although Nate has kind of jumped on board), feel like I am doing SOMETHING when I put that bottle of HFCS-laden product back on the shelf. I buy more organic stuff, more stuff from the farmers’ market, and overall, stuff that’s probably better for me. If I can do it, it proves that any old schmo can do it. And if enough any old schmos do it, maybe the market will get a clue and change their habits.

sugar beets

Since I figured out how corn syrup is made, I figured I should probably understand how sugar is processed.

The sucrose part of it is in the beet and is made from sunshine and farming. (And fertilizer as well, I would assume.) The beets are harvested and taken to a processing plant where they’re cut into shoestring-potato-like wedges for maximum exposure. Then my understanding is that the bejesus is boiled out of them. (There’s actually a very detailed description here, but my understanding is that it’s boiled like heck in water.)

Next the sugar water is mixed with calcium hydroxide (milk of lime) and carbon dioxide bubbles (this process is fittingly known as “carbonation”). Then there are lots of settling tanks to get the non-sugary stuff out.

Next is sulfitation where sulfur dioxide gas is mixed into the juice to prevent the “Maillard Reaction”, which is a reaction with amino acids that would turn it brown; this is the same reaction that happens on the crust of bread.

Then we have more bejesus boiling for some evaporation so we get a sugar sludge (mmm) called standard liquor. This is normally stored until crystallization, where the magic happens. The sludge is boiled in a vacuum (!!!) and some sugar crystals are introduced to the sludge so more crystals “grow”. The vacuum’s dropped and crystals and juice are centrifuged, and the result? White sugar and molasses. The sugar is dried in a rotating cylinder and then off to be stored for further bagging, weighing, etc.

That was a lot more involved than I thought it would be. Huh. You know, the more I read about sugar, the more I realize it’s not that great either. But it does taste better. And you don’t have to add hydrochloric acid to make it be sugary.

Tomorrow: sugar cane!



Ok, so sugar cane isn’t that much different and doesn’t deserve its own post. The main differences are:

Instead of boiling to get the sugar water (the first step), the cane is pressed to release the sugar water. Then same same same same.

One nice thing about cane sugar is that often the pulp that’s left after the pressing is used to power the plant that makes the sugar. The beet factory I looked up makes a specific pellet out of the leftover beet pulp and mixes it with molasses and sold in Europe (although what they use if for, I have no idea…. the site doesn’t say).

the deal with sugar

To understand the overabundance of hfcs, first things first: why sugar is expensive in the US.

When we acquired the Louisiana territory, farmers decided to start growing sugar cane, which was actually not a very good thing to be growing in the not-tropical continental US. So, the government made sure tariffs were imposed on imported sugar so as to not lower the value of slaves working on sugar plantation. And god forbid slave values got lower.

Thus starts the big sugar debacle.

In the 1930s, sugar quotas were imposed as well as the tariffs and subsidies to sugar growers. This has continued to this day, with justification being that congress is “protecting” the American people from international sugar prices. If only that were true: in the past 45 years, only 1 year has the international sugar price been higher than US prices.

We’re not talking 2-3¢ difference here. While sugar sells for 21¢/lb. here in the US, it’s 3¢/lb. worldwide.

The practice of import quotas was abolished briefly in the 70s, but Reagan (the harbinger of republican free-market, eh?) reimposed them to artificially create a shortage, drive up prices, and support American sugar growers.

Oh, this seemed to be a USDA regulation nightmare when, in 1984, something happened that would change everything: Coke and Pepsi announced they were switching to hfcs.

500,000 tons of sugar demand a year was suddenly gone. So much for the control of supply and demand. In 1985, there was an additional 20% cut in the sugar quotas.

Of course there was a way around this: sugar smuggling. Companies would import items of high sugar content that got around the tariffs/quotas/government micromanaging and would sift out the sugar, then sell it at US prices. It garnered a hefty profit, I would think. This was soon abolished with additional restrictions and regulations.

Not surprisingly, this restriction and subsidization inhibits other American businesses, such as American candy producers. The high price of sugar has cut 9000 jobs since 1981. Brach Candy relocated its Chicago factory to Canada (Canada!) because of sugar prices. 10 sugar refineries have closed. Soybean exports have decreased, especially from MN. The rent on farmland is so spendy in the Red River Valley because of sugar beet growers that soybean farmers (which are relatively unsubsidized) can’t find land to grow soybeans. Other countries have limited their American imports, such as Brazil (a biiig sugar country) limiting the grain it imports. The Dominican Republic is producing grains instead of sugar to compete with American farmers.

Meanwhile, there are 13,000 sugar growers in the US, 17 of which receive more than half of the benefits of the sugar subsidies. Nice, huh? And to top it off, a lot of them are growing in areas that aren’t suited to growing sugar. Which begs the question: why are we cyclically driving ourselves into the ground on this sugar thing??

The 1996 farm bill almost passed (217-208) with the sugar subsidies cut out. The sugar lobby in this country is a hard thing to pass up, apparently, because the bill that would cut out the subsidies was actually sponsored by 223 house reps. they got lured away by money from the sugar dudes. And why not lure them away if you can, when you are making more government money than any other country to grow an artificially scarce product?

Oh, this is just the beginning of the ridiculosity. Wait until you hear about corn.

further shopping

I went to the store and found some hfcs-free ketchup: Simply Heinz

Taste test reveals that it’s a bit sweeter, and probably more true-tasting to its ingredients. It has less “tang” and more tomato-y goodness.

I also found some hfcs-free prepackaged choco-chip cookies (mmm) which I’m HOPING didn’t use hfcs-full vanilla. False advertising if they did.

My coworker asked me today what the different between corn syrup and hi-fr corn syrup was today and I had to say, I didn’t know. SO. I did some research.

Apparently, both are broken down by using hydrocholoric/sulfiric acid. YUM think about that next Christmas when those corn-syrupy cookies are sitting out at work. Regular corn syrup has dextrose its sugar, which is about 3/4 as sweet as regular sugar. For those companies that need it SWEEEEET, they add enzymes that convert the dextrose into 42% fructose. For those that want it even sweeeeeeter (pop), I will quote this because I don’t want to condense it:

“To produce corn syrups with a fructose level above 50%, the 42% fructose syrup is passed through a series of fractionation columns, which separate and hold the fructose content. The separated portion is about 80-90% fructose and is flushed from the columns with deionized water. A portion of this is retained and sold for use in “light” foods where only a small amount of liquid sweetener is needed. The remainder is blended with other 42% fructose syrup to produce a 55% fructose syrup, which is used in soft drinks, ice cream, and frozen desserts.”

Ok now that I have the process down, I’m going to start focusing on why corn is such a hot commodity in this country. And how much of a commodity it is.

corn syrup free: a shopping trip

I went to the grocery store last night to look for some appropriate vanilla and to price real maple syrup. I knew I wasn’t going for ice cream 🙁

So, I traveled down the baked-goods aisle and parked in front of the vanilla rack. 5 different choices and guess which version used actual sugar instead of hfcs? That’s right. The 99¢ imitation vanilla by Valu-time. Who’d’ve thunk? Real vanilla, apparently, doesn’t use sugar. I have to use the crappy imitation stuff. You’d think it’d be the other way around.

Onward to the maple syrup section, where I was REALLY excited to see this:

Now No high fructose corn syrup!!

Woohoo! I was all excited until I looked at the ingredients list and saw the first ingredient was…. corn syrup. *Sigh* not what I was looking for. Sure, it isn’t high-fructose, but it’s still corn, which is my main concern. So, if I want to have syrup, I’ll have to dish out the $7 for 12 oz. of real stuff. I’ll jump that hurdle when I want pancakes.

I found a list of what fast-food foods contains hfcs:

I was right to nix McDonald’s; even their buns contain hfcs!!! Good grief! Which prompted me to go check out my bread, and the current loaf is safe. What a load of poo: I can’t even have a quarter pounder. Which sucks even more since there were a crap-ton of free McDonald’s coupons at work. Ugh! I really want to try their frappe, but I am positive the things are loaded with hfcs. Ah well.

I did some digging and found that one of the “enzymes” they use to break down the kernels is sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid. YUMMY. Just want I want. They don’t use a lot, but it is in there.

a preliminary look

I quickly looked through my cupboard and fridge for foods containing high fructose corn syrup, and here’s what I pulled out: chocolate sauce, grape jelly, maple syrup, vanilla, soy sauce, barbeque sauce, Catalina salad dressing (my blue cheese was safe, whew), Worcestershire sauce, karo syrup (surprise surprise), and ketchup. Last week this would have included ice cream.

What surprised me the most? VANILLA!!! Gah!! Granted, it’s “food club” brand, so hopefully I’ll be able to find some vanilla that will work for me, but I was still surprised that “real” vanilla contained hfcs.

A disappointment, but hardly a surprise, and probably the thing I’ll have the most difficulty with: ketchup.

Another one I’ll miss: Pepsi

I drink diet all through the week, and then generally on the weekends I get a 2-liter of regular. HFCS is ingredient #2, right after carbonated water.

There were a lot of things that surprisingly used sugar: frosting, Nutella, and peanut butter to name a few. I thought I was going to have to buy organic peanut butter, but not the case.

I was also going through a mental list of places I eat out regularly: Jimmy’s Pizza, subway, Kay’s kitchen, McDonald’s, 5 Guys. The only one I think I’d have to give up completely because you just don’t know: McDonald’s. And at all places it’ll be sayonara to sugared pop. Since I generally order iced tea when available, I should be ok.

Here’s a link to the mayo clinic hfcs page:

The health consequences are really up in the air compared to sugar. But my concern really isn’t the health issue – it’s the economic/social issues. Not to mention that when they make it, they use ingredients during which a person needs to wear safety glasses and gloves. How great is that!

I plan on starting tomorrow, Monday May 3 and go until at least the 31, unless I go insane with trying to find alternatives.