Everybody realizes that we are suffering from an epidemic of obesity, and it all boils down to corn.
Most experts agree that a prime contributor to the obesity problem is the excessive consumption of soda and junk food like chips and candy. These things are among the cheapest items available in the grocery store, which is why poor people consume a disproportionate amount of them.
All these things, and almost everything else in the store except for the fruits and vegetables, are made from corn. High fructose corn syrup is the major sweetener in soft drinks.
About 70 percent of the corn that is processed in this country ends up as corn syrup. It's dirt cheap, because corn is dirt cheap.
Corn is cheap because your tax dollars make it cheap.
There is not a corn farmer in the country who can make money growing corn and selling it at market price. They all lose, even the giant agribusinesses.
The only reason they make money is because we taxpayers pay them to grow corn. They get a subsidy for every acre of corn they grow, and it is this subsidy that nets them a profit.
We pay them so much to grow corn that they grow more than we need.
The high fructose corn syrup business was invented to use up the extra corn we were growing. It has now displaced almost all other sweeteners from the soft drink market, and almost everything else you buy with sugar in it.
Corn also accounts for almost all the beef we eat. Cattle are kept in lots and fed corn products. They gain weight and are ready to slaughter much faster when raised this way, and it's just as well: most of them are about to die anyway, because cows are not genetically designed to eat this way.
Humans are not designed to eat this way either. Corn syrup is about the worst form of food to eat, because it contains what is known as "empty calories," meaning that other than energy, it has no nutritional value.
Overproduction of corn is indirectly responsible more than 18,000 human deaths a year. That's how many people die from MRSA or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Because cows (and other animals) are fed this unnatural diet and because of the conditions in which they are kept on factory farms, they become extremely susceptible to disease.
To prevent disease, they are fed antibiotics. About 85 percent of the antibiotics made in the U.S. are fed to animals, not humans.
As a result, bacteria are rapidly developing immunity to the antibiotics, and people have begun to die from diseases that we can no longer combat with the drugs we have available.
MRSA is only one of several culprits.
If we did not pay farmers to grow corn, some would decide not to grow it. Then there would be less corn available, and each bushel would be worth more.
Farmers could make a profit without our taxes subsidizing them. We could save all that tax money and reduce the deficit, or spend it on something we actually want rather than something we have too much of.
At the same time, since the price of corn would go up, the price of everything made from corn would also go up.
This is as it should be: the free market cannot work if the price we pay for products does not reflect the cost of making them. Further, if the price of junk food went up, perhaps people would eat less of it.
This is a pretty optimistic outlook. Obese people are not really going to choose carrots over potato chips because the price of the chips just went up by a dime. (Yes, corn prices would affect the cost of potato chips, because they are fried in corn oil.) But over time, price can have an effect: there is a lot less smoking in this country since we made tobacco more expensive.
It is unfortunate when food that is bad for you costs less than food that is good for you. It is worse when the prices are manipulated to make this so. If we are going to subsidize the growing of food in this country, can't we at least subsidize good food?
David Reingold is Foster chair in chemistry at Juniata College.