Fast Food Made Up Mostly of Corn

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Corn's U.S. prevalence is reinforced by a basket of federal subsidies that encourages farmers to specialize in corn production.

This has, in turn, encouraged the meat industry to base their productivity around corn, ratcheting up the overall demand for the grain.

"It is this self-reinforcing cycle that gets set up and supports this whole industrial model of meat production," said Cox of the working group.

The end result is a food system rife with corn, which carries a host of health consequences.

Early scientific literature on people eating corn-fed meat instead of grass-fed meat—a more natural food source—is revealing changing the composition of fats in the human diet.

(Related: "Cloned Pigs Produce Healthy Fat, Heart-Smart Pork?" [March 27, 2006].)

This shift may be at the root of human-health issues such as upticks in heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, author Michael Pollan noted in his 2006 book Omnivore's Dilemma.

(Get the facts on human diseases.)

Leaky Cornfields

From an environmental standpoint, the situation isn't much better.

Corn receives about 35 percent of all agricultural pesticides and 40 percent of all commercial fertilizer used in the U.S.

And since cornfields are "inherently leaky," a lot of these chemicals are lost to the water and air, noted Cox.

For instance, nitrogen—which comes from fertilizers—in the form of nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Consumers ought to know what is in the meat they consume, lead author Jahren said.

"The really important thing we've done is highlighted this information gap."

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