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Food Politics

Is Corn Getting a Bad Rap?

Online editor Christy Harrison posed this question to the Gourmet staff after she found herself on the losing side of a debate with online editorial director Adam Houghtaling and multimedia producer Azon Juan. What followed was an impassioned email exchange that touched on everything from haunted corn mazes to food-justice issues to the joys of eating corn that “does not taste like packing pellets.” Read our thoughts, then share yours in the comments.
corn vs big corn

Christy Harrison, online editor:

Hi all,

Adam and I have been kicking around seasonal recipe-roundup ideas, and one possibility that came up was corn…but a couple folks here in the web area are saying they now tend to avoid corn, even at the farmers market, because of all the negative press lately around industrially processed corn (and because they figure they already get enough corn in their diets in processed food). So I wanted to see what you guys think: Do you avoid buying fresh corn because it’s in so much processed food (or for other reasons)? Or do you think that’s silly and the distinction between farmers market corn and Big Corn is obvious? I’m trying to see if there could be a larger story here.

William Sertl, travel editor:

I’m not clear why anyone would avoid corn at a farmers’ market. The summer corn at stands on Long Island (along with tomatoes) is one of the joys of summer. One place, Harbes, doesn’t even open for the season until July 1 because the corn isn’t ready before then. In the fall, it runs a “haunted corn maze” and sells pumpkins.

John Willoughby, executive editor:

I agree. Also, quite honestly, I think a lot of the hype about the evils of industrially processed corn is overblown. It’s not like the corn stalks are sentient beings like hogs. And if you’re going to avoid corn, you surely have to avoid soybeans, which are the most genetically engineered crop on earth, which means no tofu. And most winter tomatoes are raised by slave labor. And on and on it goes. What are people who can’t afford to shop at boutique organic stores supposed to eat?

Lawrence Karol, managing editor:

This is completely ridiculous as far as I’m concerned. Why don’t we all just move to a farm and raise our own cows and chickens and grow vegetables. Oh, wait...my tractor and my animals will contribute to environmental pollution and global warming. I guess I could just stop eating.

Kemp Minifie, executive food editor:

I completely agree. You can find problems with just about everything in the marketplace. There’s no greater joy than devouring corn on the cob, except perhaps biting into a tomato sandwich.

John Haney, copy chief:

I think the distinction between “real” corn (sustainably grown; does not taste like packing pellets) and Big Corn is obvious. Plus: The mere idea of avoiding farmers market corn for the reasons those “folks” give does in fact strike me as slightly silly—verging, perhaps, on the spurious. Another consideration: Many people nowadays are cutting back, whenever possible, on those processed foods that are excessively stuffed with the wrong kind of corn.

Adam Houghtaling, online editorial director:

This whole thing came from a very slight discussion last night when I mentioned to Christy that I avoid corn now (no matter where I see it) because I just have this nagging “everything is made of CORN” “CORN ethanol subsidies = bad” “don’t ever touch high fructose CORN syrup” voice in the back of my mind that makes me think twice. Guilt by association? Perhaps—but if I’m thinking this I can only imagine others are as well.

Azon Juan, multimedia producer:

I tend not to eat corn. I hear so much bad news about corn that I don’t see why I should eat it, and I’m positive it’s getting into my diet in other ways that I don’t know about. I think of corn as an unnecessary vegetable that doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value. Maybe I’m just angry—now everyone knows that high-fructose corn syrup is terrible for you—but as a child of the ’80s, I consumed gallons and gallons of soda, and that was normal. Now it sickens me to know how awful that stuff was. Plus comes the knowledge that corn isn’t even good for cows, and that grass-fed beef is a healthier option. That’s just yet another reason that corn is bad—now I try to eat grass-fed beef whenever possible. But yet, there’s still one way I’m getting corn into my diet—it’s the corn I can’t stay away from when I go to the movies.

Christy Harrison:

Yes, the whole popcorn thing—I have other friends who talk about having “corn guilt” when they eat popcorn, too. Or when they have fresh corn at someone’s house and then learn that it came from a big-box store (which I guess means it might be full of pesticides or could have been shipped from far away). To some extent it really is guilt by association, because most of the “bad” corn is in processed foods, not in fresh corn. But there is plenty of genetically modified sweet corn around, too (the kind that you eat on the cob)—and you can’t just assume that your local farmer doesn’t use GMO seed, because some small-scale farmers do. If you’re looking to avoid GMOs, I can definitely see an argument to be made for avoiding corn, or at least being wary of it. I personally don’t think I get too much corn in my diet (because I really don’t eat many processed foods and usually buy grass-fed meat), but I am careful about where I buy fresh corn.

James Rodewald, drinks editor:

We eat corn from small farms all summer long, every night we can.

Jacqueline Terrebonne, special projects editor:

Sweet summer corn is the best. There’s nothing wrong with good corn.

Maybe some people are reading a little too much into (and sometimes even misreading) the Food Inc., Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc. hysteria. But it’s probably a small population of people who are really into food. Now I just think more about the corn in my soft drink than delicious farm-stand corn.

Ian Knauer, food editor:

There’s a bigger story. I agree that I won’t stop eating corn and that there are potential problems with just about everything, but I also have been able to see the way corn is farmed now. It’s scary.

The farmer that takes hay from us in PA also farms corn in nearby farms. They no longer plow or rotate crops. They harvest the corn in the fall, then mow down the stalks to a foot high. They inject the soil with nitrogen and other chemicals. The fields sit like that, skeletonized, all winter. In the spring they inject new corn seed and do it again. Nothing else will grow in the fields; no weeds, no wild grasses, nothing.

The issue is bigger than how we eat corn, or if we choose to.

Kemp Minifie:

Is he growing corn for corn on the cob or corn for feed?

Isn’t this the story that Michael Pollan has written about a lot? I guess my point is: Does this guy sell his corn at farmers markets?

Ian Knauer:

I believe the corn this farmer grows is for ethanol production. But that’s not the point.

On a related and somewhat ironic side note, I met an organic-heirloom corn farmer in Mexico who told me that in his lifetime, the corn he grows has been affected by climate change. 25 years ago it took 15 days to ripen; now it takes eight.

William Sertl:

I found the idea of not eating “good” corn to punish the evil growers a bit scary. The North Fork is one big celebration of corn all summer long, and the farmers there have been growing it the same way forever.

Kate Winslow, editor:

When I was a kid, my favorite summer meal was nothing more than a big platter of corn on the cob (which my mom picked up at the farmers market) and sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. It still is. There are a lot of things I wring my hands about eating. Summer corn is not one of them.

Lawrence Karol:

Well put. Now let’s stop sending these emails.

Our in-house debate may be over, but we’d love to hear what you think. Is fresh corn on your summer shopping list?