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Corn: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

John Oliver discusses the financial and environmental impact of corn in the U.S., recent commencement ceremony mishaps, and the rise of the far-right AfD party in Germany.
Corn: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 11 Episode 12
Aired on May 19, 2024

Main segment: Corn production in the United States
Other segment: Rise of the Alternative for Germany party

John Oliver discusses the financial and environmental impact of corn in the U.S., recent commencement ceremony mishaps, and the rise of the far-right AfD party in Germany.

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[Cheers and applause]

JOHN: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight!” I’m John Oliver. Thank you so much for joining us. It has been a busy week. King Charles unveiled this official portrait, depicting him being consumed by the scarlet fires of hell. A portal providing live video between New York and Dublin was temporarily shut down after, among other things, someone flashed it, which of course they did. And all around the country, there’ve been graduation ceremonies. They’ve been a little chaotic this year, both because of the continuing protests over Gaza, but also for weirder reasons, like an announcer at Thomas Jefferson University’s graduation struggling to pronounce some pretty common names.

Meghan Louise Aubrey. Maeve Elizabeth Brostoski. Sarah Virginia Brennan. Molly Elizabeth Camp. Ta-moo-may– Thomas. Thomas!

JOHN: That is magnificent. Mispronouncing “Thomas” at Thomas Jefferson University is already spectacular. And the school explained that the problem was, the names had been spelled phonetically– for instance, this was the card for “Sarah Virginia Brennan.” And while providing phonetic pronunciations is fairly commonplace for graduations, what isn’t is looking at the pronunciation, panicking, swallowing your own tongue, and then attempting to reinvent Welsh. But that wasn’t even the weirdest college graduation this year. At Benedictine College in Kansas the kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs went on an antisemitic, anti-gay, anti-trans rant, in which he also told women to “embrace one of the most important titles of all, homemaker,” which is especially wild, coming from someone whose own mother is, and this is true, a physicist specializing in “brachytherapy and gamma knife medical physics care.” But I guess he’s right, her most important job was raising this absolute ham sandwich of a man. Meanwhile, Ohio State had this “social entrepreneur” ramble through a speech he admitted he’d taken Ayahuasca to write, in which he gave the audience advice about investing in Bitcoin. And just today, Morehouse College had Joe Biden as their commencement speaker, and while as of taping that hasn’t happened yet, I’m sure it went great. And look, commencement speeches are hard. That’s why I’ve never done one, no matter how many times Hogwarts asks me to. Stop sending me fucking owls. But they don’t need to be an absolute disaster. And perhaps the wildest choice for speaker this year came from D’Youville University in Buffalo, whose graduation speaker was… this.

Congratulations to all the graduating students. I offer you the following inspirational advice that is common at all graduation ceremonies. Embrace lifelong learning. Be adaptable. Pursue your passions. Take risks. Foster meaningful connections. Make a positive impact. And believe in yourself.

JOHN: Yeah, they had a robot address their graduating students, with remarks composed by AI. And I’m sure students will remember those stirring words as robots take all their jobs, before eventually tracking them down when they’re hiding in an abandoned warehouse during humanity’s final hours. But we’re going to move on to talk about Europe– Britain’s ex. It’s had a tumultuous week. Slovakia’s prime minister barely survived an assassination attempt, and in Germany, the far-right anti-immigrant AFD party has been on the rise. And yes, its logo does look like the Nike swoosh grew a very sharp penis. This week, though, the AFD suffered multiple setbacks, with one court ruling they’re a potential threat to democracy, and another convicting one of their leading members on a pretty striking charge.

A prominent figure in Germany’s far-right, Alternative for Germany, AFD party is standing trial for using a banned nazi-era slogan. Björn Höcke allegedly repeated the phrase “everything for Germany” twice at political rallies. The phrase was once a motto of the original paramilitary wing of the nazi party. Höcke denies he was aware of the origins of the slogan, claiming it is a common everyday phrase.

JOHN: Yeah, Höcke claimed that he was unaware that “everything for Germany” was a nazi slogan. Although I will say, that’s a little hard to believe, given– one, those are nazi eyes. And two, before going into politics, he used to be a history teacher. In Germany! So unless his version of German history went Middle Ages then 18th century then Otto von Bismarck then “everyone kind of just hung out for a while” then “99 luft balloons,” it’s pretty tough to believe. And I know it might seem weird to be on trial for just saying that slogan. It’s a stark difference from the U.S., where our constitution guarantees virtually unlimited freedom of speech, except, of course, when the Supreme Court decides it’s cool for a public university to ban drag shows. Yeah, that happened two months ago. It’s kind of surprising no one flew a pride flag upside down on their lawn in protest. But Germany has constitutional safeguards designed to prevent authoritarian rule, for reasons that should be obvious to everyone except, I’m guessing, Germany’s worst-ever history teacher. And yet, in spite of all this, the AFD has become increasingly popular. In fact, it’s now the 2nd most popular party in the country. Höcke himself is running to become premier in his state– essentially, the governor– in September’s regional elections. And if he succeeds, it would be the first time since the end of the nazi regime that there would be a far-right party in control of a state government in Germany. The growth of the AFD is alarming. And a CNN reporter actually attended one of their meetings, although in doing so, chose to report on it in a slightly weird way.

Pro and AFD curious supporters have gathered to hear from party officials, the message even has Trumpian undertones. Our country first, posters say. Part of the AFD pull for voters is about luring people away from some of Germany’s largest political parties through transparency they say. But some of what’s being discussed in this room is warped, questioning things like the COVID pandemic and whether climate change is even real.

JOHN: Totally agree, it’s all very upsetting, but– did it ever cross your mind to report on that from, like, outside? They can hear you! Your onscreen caption might as well have said, “gullible dipshits in here don’t even realize I’m talking about them.” I know these are famously pretty intolerant people, but even I have to admit, they’re being surprisingly chill about someone shit-talking them during their meeting. That said, AFD supporters do hold some deeply worrying views.

I’m glad that someone is taking care of all this scum that has spread in this country, in our beautiful Germany.

If being far right means living my life as I’ve done so far at 68 that is studying, working, paying my taxes, never doing anything wrong, then being far right or being a nazi cannot be something wrong.

JOHN: Okay, but that’s very much not what being far right means. Lots of people are 68, working, and paying taxes, and I’d venture to say most of them are not nazi enthusiasts, other than, it seems, you and Mel Gibson. The AFD pushes hardline anti-immigrant, anti-muslim policies and promotes “a return to traditional German culture.” In 2017, the party’s manifesto said “Islam does not belong to Germany,” and that same year, it ran this ad, which translates to, “burkas? We like bikinis.” Which is the slogan you get if you combine the horniness of a “female body inspector” t-shirt with the islamophobia of the actual FBI. Though it’s pretty clear all that talk of loving “German traditions” is just a dog whistle– especially when you discover just how little some of them seem to know about the culture they’re celebrating. Just watch as an AFD party leader was caught completely off guard by a literal child.

We would like to see more German folk songs taught and more German poems taught. That we appreciate our German thinkers and poets more in the schools.

I think we already have to memorize quite a lot of poetry. What’s your favorite poem, actually? Your favorite German one?

My favorite poem… Is, umm… I’d have to think about it. Can’t remember any at the moment.

None?

No.

JOHN: Wow, good for that kid. Dismantling a politician while also managing to complain about homework. That’s embarrassing for that man, who just got destroyed by someone whose mom is picking them up after this interview. And the AFD has been associated with much nastier stuff than just “learn German poetry.” It recently came out a number of AFD officials attended a secret meeting where participants discussed proposals for “unassimilated citizens” to be deported to “a model state in North Africa,” instantly drawing comparisons to the nazi’s “initial plan to deport European Jews to Madagascar.” It’s all very bleak. But if there’s any good news here, it’s the severity of the backlash against the AFD from many Germans. In January, over 1 million people rallied in cities across Germany, with banners and signs that said things like “no nazis” and “voting for AFD is so 1933.” And they clearly knew what was at stake.

More than 150,000 here outside the Reichstag with one message: Germany will not go back to the dark days.

We’ve been there already. You know?

And you can stop them this time? I hope so, we have to.

If you now hear people fantasizing about deporting millions of Germans and migrants in Germany to other countries wherever it is that I mean it resonates directly to history.

JOHN: Yeah, that man is right! And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that not only did he bring that delightfully composed wiener dog, it also had the presence of mind to look straight down the camera, as if it was waiting for a record scratch so it could say, “yep. That’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.” And a quick note to that CNN reporter: that’s how you report. Not by whispering over a speech in progress, but by identifying people with perfect dogs and immediately going to talk to them. And while the pushback to the AFD is inspiring, the party’s not going away anytime soon. They’re running for seats in the European Parliament next month, and there are regional and national elections on the horizon. All of which should be very concerning. Because between the attempted assassination of a central European leader, and the rise of a far-right party in Germany, Europe really seems to be playing the 20th century hits right now, even if some of their former history teachers refuse to see the similarity.

[…]

JOHN: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns corn. We love it in all its forms, from caramel corn, to the corn palace in South Dakota, to the mascot of the Nebraska Cornhuskers– except, not the modern travesty. I’m talking about the earlier one– no, not that demon. The “original.” Yeah, that’s him. The guy in regular clothes with an enormous corncob for a head, asking the question, “am I man or am I corn?” We love corn so much, we’ve even found a way to make it a wholesome family activity.

This Illinois corn maze is rural sprawl: 28 acres in all with almost 10 miles of trails.

We said, if we’re gonna do it, why not be the world’s largest?

The theme changes every year.

That great aerial photograph, we want people to go, “wow, that’s a magnificent picture.” Our Beatles maze in 2013, I mean, you could see the faces of the Beatles. Fifth-graders zigzagging through a corn maze thinking, “we gotta find a way out, or this field trip could be our last.”

JOHN: Wow, that got dark, quick. Although I think even the Beatles would agree– there’s no better tribute to their legacy than having terrified children wander around Ringo’s nostrils wondering if they’ll ever see their families again. And because of how much we love corn, appealing to the corn growers of America has always been good politics. Presidential contenders love to pander to people in Iowa, from Obama standing in front of a cornfield, to Mitt Romney pretending to be intently interested in an ear of corn, to whatever George Bush thought he was doing here. There’s a long history of American politicians being weird around corn, but perhaps no one’s ever been weirder while discussing it than this.

I just met non-liquid gold. You know where it was? Iowa. It’s called corn. They have– it’s non-liquid. That’s what they have. You have more non-liquid gold. They said, “what is that?” I said, “corn.” They said, “we love that idea.” You know, that’s a pretty cool thought, isn’t it? That’s a nickname in its own way. But we came up with a new word for– a new couple of words for corn.

JOHN: Did you? Did you though? Because “non-liquid gold” isn’t so much a way of describing corn as it is a way of describing “regular gold.” That’s a level of non-innovation innovation we haven’t seen since Lyft invented something called Lyft shuttle, which was, and this is true, the bus. But he’s right: we are the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of non-liquid not-gold in the world. We also produce more corn than any other crop in the U.S. Farming it’s a nearly $90 billion industry, with farmers planting roughly 90 million acres a year. And in case you’re like me and don’t really understand what an acre is, it might help to know that cornfields currently occupy nearly 5% of the land surface of the contiguous United States. And you might already be thinking, “well, so what? That means America’s well-stocked for the movies, barbecues, and house parties where someone wants that black bean salsa thing. Why do you have to ruin a good thing?” And to that I say, one: it’s a calling and a clarity of purpose and two: of those millions of acres of corn, only 1% is made for direct human consumption. The rest is called field or “dent” corn– which, as these documentarians discovered, might look delicious, but very much isn’t.

Ugh. It’s not very good, Ian. Tastes like sawdust.

Yeah. It’s disgusting. It tastes like chalk.

I really thought it would taste better.

JOHN: Yeah, turns out, sweet corn is as similar to dent corn as a chocolate bunny is to a real bunny. Only one of them actually tastes good raw. Now, I should point out– dent corn is used in a lot of things that we do consume, like cornmeal and high-fructose corn syrup. It’s also used in industrial products, like paints and plastics. But in recent years, such uses have only accounted for around 15% of what we do with dent corn, with around 40% being used for livestock feed, and the final 45% becoming the gasoline alternative ethanol. But as you’ll see, while corn is incredibly versatile, the way we’ve incentivized farming it has caused considerable downstream harm. Because it turns out, corn’s utter dominance of American agriculture comes at the expense of our environment, our health, and some of our farming communities. Just listen to one scientist who grew up farming sum up how he feels about it.

I go by a field of corn. Looks beautiful to me. You know, that– that comes from having grown up on the Kansas farm. If you’re not aware as to what it is that stands behind all of that agriculture, you can live with the illusion that there’s nothing wrong.

JOHN: Right. If you don’t know what’s behind those stalks of corn, you can easily believe there’s nothing wrong. But I’ve already shown you there could well be a bunch of fifth graders wandering around back there, running low on supplies. So we’re past the point of the illusion. And given that, tonight, let’s talk about a few of the key problems with corn. Specifically, how we subsidize it, how we grow it, and what we shove it into. And let’s start with the fact that the U.S. is incredibly well-suited to growing corn, as this professor explains in a bizarre walk-and-talk.

It’s really a tropical crop, warm season crop. But the growing season here, the precipitation, the rainfall that we get, the amount of light that we get, all those things combine to just be a wonderful, perfect environment for it to grow in.

JOHN: What is happening there? Whose idea was it to make him do that? “You know what would make this point about the perfect climate of the corn belt really land for people? Professor Roger Elmore being aggressively groped by horny stalks of it.” But while chemical fertilizers, careful breeding, and new technology have made farmers able to grow massive amounts of corn, government policy has also played a significant role, by heavily thumbing the scale in incentivizing what crops farmers choose to grow. Modern farm policy was born during the Great Depression, when farmers faced a crisis. Nearly a million lost their farms in the first four years alone. And that’s when FDR’s administration passed legislation to drive the price of farmed goods up during times of oversupply, by doing things like paying farmers to plant less. But a key turning point came in the 1970s, thanks in large part to a man named– and this is true– Earl Butz. His nickname was actually “Rusty,” meaning he was known as true again– Earl “Rusty” Butz. Anyway– Butz, who was Nixon’s agriculture secretary, disagreed with the policy of paying farmers to reduce supply, and sought to swing the pendulum all the way in the opposite direction.

With the new Farm Act, we have experienced a 180-degree turn in the philosophy of our farm programs. We’ve abandoned the longtime philosophy of curtailment and cutback to the new philosophy of expansion. We’re going to see the most massive increase in production of farm products ever in this history of this country.

JOHN: Yeah, Rusty Butz, a man who looks like he’d probably one day have to resign after saying a racial slur– insisted everyone should “grow more.” And he did that only a few years before, unsurprisingly, resigning after saying a racial slur. But while he was still in the job, Butz pushed hard for farmers to expand their operations. And Nixon’s 1973 farm bill reflected his philosophy. Farmers would no longer be paid for not planting crops. Instead, if prices fell below a certain target, the federal government would simply pay farmers to make up the difference, significantly reducing the risk of expanding your operation, and incentivizing farmers to go as big as they could. These policies helped create almost immediate surpluses in commodity crops, especially corn. And similar policies still exist today– and on top of them, the government now issues subsidies to pay for part of a farmer’s crop insurance– which provides coverage to farmers if their crops fail. Those subsidies have amounted to over 60% of the insurance premiums in recent years. And while these policies sometimes get positioned as protections for small family farmers, the truth is, that’s not who reaps the vast majority of the benefits, which tend to flow to the biggest producers. In fact, over the last 28 years, the top 10% of farm subsidy recipients received 79% of the subsidies, with over a quarter of them going to the top 1%. Meanwhile, the vast majority of farmers do not benefit from farm subsidy programs at all. And that’s for many reasons, not least of which is that it’s much harder for small farms, which might grow a wider variety of crops, to qualify for them. Just listen to this family explain their small farm’s situation.

We grow tomatoes, we grow basil, we grow cauliflower, we grow broccoli, we grow chard and carrots. We grow the healthiest crops we– we possibly can.

I don’t think there is a subsidy for any of the crops we grow. As far as I’m concerned, the only subsidies out there are for the big grain producers.

JOHN: Okay, first, let me just address something: that’s a fucked-up looking carrot that kid’s holding there. But second, it does feel wrong that an operation growing healthy produce wouldn’t receive any subsidies, even if it is called “c’est naturelle,” which sounds less like a small family farm and more like a ph-balancing douche. And some big landowners have, over the years, developed all sorts of ways to game the farm-subsidy system. For instance, payments used to be capped on a per-farm basis, so they simply started subdividing themselves into multiple entities, each of which could then collect the maximum payout. Back in the 2000s, the Gao pointed out this problem– noting that one landowner in Arkansas, David Brooks Griffin, had split his farm into 66 smaller ones and seemed to be listing his employees as their owners. Just watch what happened when one reporter tried to pay Griffin a visit.

We wanted to speak with Mr. Griffin, shown here leaving on his helicopter, but he refused. So, instead, we set out to find some of the people Griffin enlisted as owners of those smaller farms. It took some hunting for us to find Quimby Potts.

I’m a partner in three different farms.

The government lists him as a part owner of several of the smaller farms. But like many listed as owners of paper farms, Potts appeared to be an owner in name only.

The records indicate, over three years, you received $340,000.

Through the farms.

Through the farm payments, that’s right. But did you put that money in your bank account?

Yeah, no!

JOHN: Yeah, of course “no.” That is very well said! And if you’re wondering how to tell who the real owner of the farm is, it’s not the guy who agreed to the interview, and it is the guy “shown leaving on his helicopter.” But USDA investigators said that was perfectly legal. And incredibly, some of the rules have only gotten looser since then. Under the current farm bill, that per-farm payment limit has been scrapped. And while there’s technically a limit of $125,000 per year, per person, crucially, there is no cap on how many people can reach the payment limit. So in addition to more immediate family members like parents, siblings, and adult children, cousins, nieces or nephews also qualify for payments. The only real requirement is that you must be “actively engaged” in farming. But it turns out, even that doesn’t really mean much.

The definition of actively engaged in farming is very vague, so you can call into a shareholder meeting every now and then a few times a year or do things like have some small financial risk in the farm in order to receive payments. So, you don’t have to ever set foot on a farm to receive these payments.

JOHN: That’s true. You don’t have to even set foot on a farm, you can just be the farm owner’s cousin. Which as we’re all aware, can be someone you barely know. A normal relationship with your cousin is: get their holiday card announcing their third pregnancy, think “didn’t they say they hated kids?” Hang the card on your fridge, and then throw it away once you stop feeling guilty. All of which, in my opinion, doesn’t entitle you to $125,000 a year. And look, it’s not like corn is the only crop we subsidize in this way. You could make similar criticisms of wheat or soybeans. But the biggest share of these subsidies in recent decades have gone to corn, far surpassing that of any other crop. Basically, in the world of agricultural products, corn is the unquestionable superstar. Beans wanna be it, oats wanna fuck it. And as the corn industry has ballooned, some of the biggest beneficiaries haven’t actually been the farmers themselves, but enormous corporations– from these four companies that now dominate the nitrogen fertilizer industry [Koch, Yara, CF, Nutrien] to these two that now dominate nearly three-quarters of the supply of seeds for corn [Bayer, Corteva Agriscience]. And as the production of corn has become increasingly industrialized, the methods we’ve used to supercharge its growth have taken a toll on the environment. Take nitrogen fertilizer. It’s 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 all major U.S. crops. And that can have consequences that many scientists– including that guy you saw earlier– are concerned about. Because nitrogen fertilizer is the biggest contributor to a problem that happens when contaminated water on agricultural land leaches into groundwater, or runs off into rivers and streams, and eventually gets into our drinking water– which can cause a condition with a truly horrifying name.

Since the 1940s, scientists have warned that exposure to excess nitrates can inhibit oxygen circulation in an infant’s blood.

Consuming high-nitrate water will tend to strip oxygen out of the blood. And that produces this blue baby syndrome.

JOHN: It’s true. There’s a condition called “blue baby syndrome,” where excess nitrates deprive kids of oxygen and it can be fatal. It’s so horrifying, you’re not even registering that that man is called “Randy Beavers.” Which in any other situation would be all anyone cares about. And I do hope we can all agree: no child should ever be turned blue unless they disobeyed Mr. Wonka’s clear instructions about not trying the chewing gum, and are now suffering the only slightly disproportionate consequences. And it’s not just humans at risk because when that contaminated runoff eventually washes into the sea, it can cause serious problems in there, too, as this local news reporter chose to tell people in a totally normal way.

Here is a little bit what it’s like to be a fish this time of year in parts of the Chesapeake Bay. I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! That’s because in the hottest part of the summer, as much as 15% of the bay has no oxygen in the water. It’s called the dead zone. I can’t breathe!

JOHN: What are you doing? The number one thing you’re taught as a child is not to put a plastic bag over your head, and he’s doing it on TV, which is hugely reckless! Everyone has a plastic bag, it’s not hard to get. I’ve got one right here. But I know I shouldn’t put it on my head, not even to make a point about the lack of oxygen in the Chesapeake Bay, or about how you shouldn’t put a plastic bag on your head on TV. I could do it. But I shouldn’t. It’s tempting… But I won’t. I won’t. Children are watching. Not mine– they’ve said “you couldn’t pay us to watch.” Which, for what it’s worth, I kind of do. All their money was first my money. That said, it’s a no from my kids. Anyway. I won’t do it. But this isn’t goodbye. It’s see you later. And it’s not just the Chesapeake. The Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone that at one point was the size of New Jersey, with studies finding farm fertilizer is the single largest contributor. Overfarming of corn has also led to severe erosion in some areas, which can lead to hazardous dust storms. In fact, this storm from last year in central Illinois killed seven people, and was directly tied to farmers tilling their land to plant corn and soybeans. So we’ve talked about how our subsidies for corn have caused an increase in production, and we’ve talked about how we grow it. Which brings us to the third set of problems here: what we put it in. And remember: 40% of the corn we grow is going to feed cows, hogs, and poultry. And while livestock’s always been fed some corn, the use of it’s been turbocharged by the fact it’s now so cheap. As one journalist has written, taxpayer subsidies for corn have served as “financial jet fuel” for a new breed of industrial meat producers, because feed is their biggest cost. But the thing is, these animals aren’t evolved to have a diet that’s predominantly corn. It’s bad for their digestive system, as this man in a car explains to those documentarians you saw earlier, in a weirdly cheery way.

What are you eating for lunch here today?

Corn-fed beef!  Do you actually know anything about corn-fed beef? Do you know what it does to ’em?

What does it–

to the cattle. It’s a good thing they slaughter when they do, because it actually kills them to feed them– to make the meat like that. So, they’d be dead in six months anyway, eating that stuff. So, it’s just as well when they slaughter ’em.

Really?

Yeah. It’s terrible.

Where is this?

Every major confinement feedlot everywhere.

JOHN: Honestly, I kind of love that guy. He should be the mascot for every fast-food chain. Fuck Ronald McDonald, this is the most accurate mascot imaginable: an impossibly American man who thinks the food tastes good, knows it’s tied to suffering and ultimately just wants to bring his wildcard energy to the parking lot. This is my Burger King. And the problems corn causes for the digestive systems of livestock can leave cattle more susceptible to liver abscesses, which is a major reason why antibiotics are often added to the feed of entire herds of beef cattle, a practice the W.H.O. has discouraged, out of concern it’s contributing to expanding antibiotic resistance. And I admit, it’s much less fun to learn about that from me than it would’ve been from that guy absolutely housing his cheeseburger. “Yeah, medicated feed might give us all antibiotic-resistant UTIs. Bon appetit! Corn-fed beef!” But maybe the most ridiculous way we use corn is ethanol— which, remember, accounts for 45% of our domestic corn use. Ethanol used to be known as gasohol, and while it’s been around since the ’30s, it was during the 1970s energy crisis that it really took off, with boosters like this Illinois agriculture official leading the way, with an unfortunate historical analogy.

Mr. Mavis, why are you so high on gasohol?

Well, as you can tell, I have some age on me, Charlayne, and probably since Pearl Harbor it’s the only thing I’ve seen that’s been good for all of America.

JOHN: Huh! That’s a pretty weird way to characterize Pearl Harbor, the surprise attack that killed over 2400 people and led to the U.S. entering World War Two. But you know what? Let’s give him a break, he probably just misspoke. I’m sure he won’t say it again.

It burns without the use of tetraethyl lead, eliminates an epa problem, it employs people in America, it takes an agricultural surplus that’s killing us and turns it into dollars instead of storage, it’s that– it’s that Pearl Harbor we’ve needed.

JOHN: Okay, okay. The first time he said it, I thought, I don’t think Al Mavis knows what Pearl Harbor is. The second time I thought, “maybe I don’t know what Pearl Harbor is.” Because what is going on there? Was Al Mavis, of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, an admiral in the Japanese navy? Because I don’t know what the other explanations could be. I’m just saying– at this point I can only assume that the people who knew him spent 9/11 tearfully going, “Al would have loved this.” But Al Mavis got his way. Basically, in an attempt to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, we passed the Energy Tax Act of 1978 which encouraged the use of gasohol– ethanol. But what really set the wheels in motion for our huge ethanol industry today was the 2005 energy bill that created the renewable fuel standard, which mandated that a certain amount of renewable fuel had to be blended into the domestic gasoline supply. Essentially, every gallon of domestic gasoline now legally has to have at least a little bit of ethanol in it, the same way every pop album currently has to have at least a little bit of Jack Antonoff. It’s just the law now. Understandably, that mandate created even more demand for corn in the domestic market. And some, like this Iowa farmer, were thrilled by that.

We’ve seen our yields raise quite a bit in the last several years. And we needed a place for this extra corn to be going, and ethanol has filled that for us. I’m sure there are some negatives, but I guess I– I’m not thinking of them right now.

JOHN: Yeah, I’m sure you’re not. And to be fair, that’s not really your job. But unfortunately, it “is” mine. Thinking of the negatives is pretty much all I do, along with speaking the negatives out loud and making jokes about the negatives all while modeling the latest suits from “Sir Michael Gambon’s Haberdashery for oddly long gentlemen.” And the truth is, there are lots of negatives when it comes to ethanol. Mainly because the positives have been wildly overstated. While ethanol lobbying groups have long argued that it slashes greenhouse emissions, one recent study found that, thanks to the fertilizer and land-use changes needed to grow the corn for it, corn ethanol produced under the renewable fuel standard has a carbon footprint at least 24% higher than regular gasoline. On top of that, the demand for ethanol is now expanding corn production to areas where it’s much less-suited to be grown, places like Texas and western Kansas, where the shortage of water means corn fields need to be irrigated. But that’s a problem, because corn is a water-intensive crop, and it can take hundreds of gallons of water to produce a single gallon of ethanol. And this is all happening even as groundwater is being dangerously depleted nationwide. And that brings us back to our larger point– while, for some big farm operations, and especially the big companies that benefit from corn, there may be no negatives to the current way we produce it, for everyone else, there really are, from dust storms to sick cows to blue babies to this reporter from your absolute nightmares.

So what can we do? Well, for starters, I’d argue we have to rethink the renewable fuel standard, because it just makes no sense. But on top of that, we might want to significantly reset our farm policy. One idea that’s been floated is to make the federal safety net for farmers contingent on them having a strategy for things like preserving topsoil, controlling chemical runoff, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And the good news is, the farm bill is actually currently up for renewal, and we could do all that! The bad news is, as you’ve seen, there are powerful interests with no reason to want the status quo to change at all. But it just has to. And let me be clear: this isn’t a takedown of corn. I know for large swaths of America, it’s an understandable symbol of pride and source of jobs. And I get that it’s frustrating to be lectured about it, or be pandered to by a politician pretending to be fascinated by its ears. But I do think it’s long past time we shift our farming policy when it comes to America’s number-one crop. And maybe the best way to drive this home is to explain it in the way people seem to most enjoy being educated about corn, and that is– watching someone be absolutely assaulted by it. Because look, corn is as beautiful to watch grow as it is to eat slathered in butter. But unless we force the government and the handful of large companies that control this industry to change their priorities, we’re going to be stuck where we are, like a bunch of fifth graders in the world’s largest corn maze begging for our fucking lives. That is our show. Thanks so much for watching. We’re off next week, we’ll be back the week after that, good night! How the fuck do I get out of here? Is it– is it this way? Get off me. Give me some personal space. I don’t like to be touched by a corn.

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