We are all fully aware by now of the devastating drought that has gripped the U.S. this year. We read about the plummeting corn yields and soaring futures prices in Chicago – currently at $8.20 per bushel. We’ve braced ourselves for higher corn flake and meat prices in the near future. What is truly staggering though is how much farther the drought and shortage of corn will impact commerce as a whole. Not only will we pay more for meat, we will likely pay more for nearly everything. Most people are unaware to what an extent their daily routine, comfort and conveniences rely on corn. Corn is ubiquitous; it is actually more difficult to find things in our daily lives that do not rely on corn for their production in some way. Corn fuels our bodies, vehicles and provides us with so many of the consumer necessities and comforts we enjoy today. In fact, according to corn industry sources, in the United States, corn is used in over 4,200 different applications.
For example, a study was conducted at the University of Honolulu, Hawaii that examined the molecular makeup of 100 various meals from the top three fast food chains across six states. Out of the 100 meals, there were only twelve servings of anything that did not source directly back to corn. Corn makes up 96.7% of all feed grains in the U.S. Virtually every animal raised for commercial food production, whether the animal produces meat, dairy or eggs, was fed a steady diet of corn.
Scientists have managed to break down corn into so many components including sugars (including high-fructose corn syrup), starches, oils, fiber and protein, that its use in food products has become incredibly pervasive. In the supermarket, outside of the produce department it is difficult to find products not produced with corn in some way. A short list of examples of items made with corn includes:
Frozen pizza/prepared foods
Crackers/cookies (almost all processed snack foods)
As surprising as some of these items might be, (salt?...wine?) corn plays a very large role in our lives outside of the food we buy. Consider this list of everyday items that are made with corn:
Plastics (food containers/paintbrush handles/brooms etc. The list is endless.)
Industrial chemicals and filters
Sports and active wear
These lists are simply examples and are far from exhaustive or complete. So when we think about the impact of this year’s drought, the implications for the consumer will be much farther reaching then we might first think. In fact, next year, the price impact on the milk you put on your cereal and the plastic spoon you use to eat it with may be greater than the impact of the cereal itself. Also, when you are in your supermarket, keep an eye on the labels- this coming year I predict that you will see a lot more labels with a fancy splash on them that says “Now made with real sugar.” This is because as the price of high-fructose corn syrup becomes more expensive, manufacturers will simply reformulate. The flip side is that once corn sugar comes down in price again, you will see the products revert back to containing high-fructose corn syrup… often as the first ingredient on the label!
Much as we have seen with our society’s all-encompassing dependence on the petroleum industry to supply us with critical items far beyond oil and gas for our vehicles, one must question our dependence on corn. Overdependence on a single commodity can lead to a society’s vulnerability. (Look no further than the Potato Famine of Ireland.) As western society attempts to lessen vulnerability and dependence on foreign oil, we may be putting all of our eggs, or in this case, corn kernels in one basket.