From his Connecticut residence on May 26, my son Peter forwarded me a 25-minute video. In it, John Oliver, a transplanted English comic, discusses U.S. corn, its production, politics and ecological and economic impact. Check out “Corn: John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight” here.

Crop Comments: Comic Addresses U.S. Corn’s Non-ComedyOliver begins on a light note, showing corn’s importance to Americans as an entertainment source. He specifically shows a 28-acre corn maze in Illinois which features almost 10 miles of trails.

He explains the political importance of candidates cozying up to corn growers – even with the physical crop itself. There’s a picture of Obama holding a microphone next to a corn field; Romney studying what appears to be a malnourished ear of corn; George Bush scowling at a partially husked ear. The fact that Iowa, the nation’s most intense corn producer, also hosts the country’s first presidential primary every four year makes wannabe-elected officials tread lightly while addressing this big cuddly annual grass (that’s how I describe Zea mays, the crop’s scientific name).

Oliver then explains how during the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt crafted federal policies paying farmers to produce less corn to drive up this commodity’s price. Then he explains how, during the waning days of the Nixon Administration, Ag Secretary Earl Butz orchestrated a 180º change to federal farm program. In Butz’s words, “We’ve abandoned the long-time philosophy of curtailment and cutback, going back to the philosophy of expansion. We’re going to see the most massive increase in production of farm products ever in the history of this country.”

Back under Nixon and Butz, when I recall hearing the term “fence-row to fence-row production,” farmers were encouraged to pursue all-out production. When such increases in supply depressed commodity prices, according to Oliver, “below a target, the federal government would simply subsidize producers to return prices received – particularly for corn – back to the targeted level.” But these policies, as Oliver points out, “have created almost immediate surpluses in commodity crops, especially corn.”

More recently, the government has subsidized farmers’ crop insurance premiums, something increasingly necessary as government-encouraged overproduction catalyzes commodity price drops. Those subsidies have amounted to over 60% of ag commodity price insurance premiums in recent years.

Small- to medium-sized producers make out very poorly in partaking from this federal largesse. “These subsidies tend to flow to the largest producers,” Oliver said. “Over the last 28 years, the largest 10% of the producers received 79% of the subsidies. Of that figure, 27% of the subsidies goes to the top 1%. The vast majority of farmers do not benefit from farm subsidies at all.”

Additionally, many of these larger farm operations have figured out how to subdivide their business so that each new smaller unit qualifies for the maximum subsidy. One interviewed individual, listed as “owner,” received $340,000 over three years, but all that federal money went to the real owner. With a maximum of $125,000 per farm per year of federal subsidy money, many big operators have become very skilled at “milking this cow for all it’s worth.” And it’s all perfectly legal.

Quoting the Feb. 4, 2023 Kansas Reflector, “Billions in federal farm payments flow to a select group of producers, a report shows. The biggest were corn subsidies.” Oliver stated that the entities profiting most from corn subsidies aren’t the producers; rather, they’re huge corporations (names I won’t mention here). Some of these mega-corporations aren’t even American. Four of these companies dominate the U.S. fertilizer industry, and two of them dominate our seed industry, commanding three-quarters of that marketplace.

Oliver points out, “As the production of corn has become increasingly industrialized, the methods we use to super-charge its growth have taken a toll on the environment. Take nitrogen fertilizer – it is needed to intensively farm one crop over and over again, especially if farmers don’t take steps to protect the soil’s natural fertility – and corn uses the most fertilizer of crops grown in the U.S.”

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, corn nutrient consumption has been volatile since 2004. Commercial fertilizer utilization increased rapidly before 1982, as more acreage was devoted to high-yield crop varieties and hybrids that responded favorably to more intensive fertilizer use.

Intensive use of nitrogen fertilizer can have consequences, when groundwater (contaminated with unused fertilizer) leaches into groundwater and runs off fields into our rivers and streams, eventually ending up in our drinking water. Such nitrate-laced water can ultimately make it into a baby’s circulatory system, immobilizing the infant’s oxygen, resulting in what physicians call “blue baby syndrome,” very often fatal.

When those surplus nitrates wash into the sea, oxygen is taken out of circulation. For example, during extra warm periods in summer, as much as 15% of the Chesapeake Bay has no measurable available oxygen, resulting in major fish kills, thus earning that part of the bay the title “Dead Zone.”

Oliver also points out that the Gulf of Mexico, even more so than the Bay, has Dead Zone issues. He quoted a bulletin from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, dated Aug. 2, 2017: “Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is largest ever measured; this year’s Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is an area about the size of New Jersey.”

I’d like to quote a Midwest reader who responded to Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” lecture: “Feeding PEOPLE hasn’t ever been the point of a farm subsidy; we have never been eligible for a single subsidy. As a native Iowan I’m really glad to see John cover this. The subsidies hurt small farmers and normal Iowans in the same way they benefit Big Ag. It’s been one of the largest issues affecting our water sources and is one of the key ways Big Ag continues to control Iowa and hold oligopolies.”