The same methods that make these foods cheaper also create a diet that is deficient in nutrients and actually detrimental to our health

Down sprawling country fields, it’s common to see rows of golden corn, spring wheat and protein-filled soy. They’re the most widely grown crops, not only across Canada and the United States, but around the world. These three have swept across the agricultural scene and produced the maximum amount of profits for the industry, which also means they’ve extracted the maximum amount of resources from our planet.

But it’s not the plants’ faults—they’ve been exploited by corporations to grow exceptionally well under destructive practices. It’s time we looked at what these “big three” are grown for, how they impact our health and the environment’s, and reevaluated what it means to produce food sustainably.

What corn, soy, and wheat are grown for

CORN: Corn is found in most of our foods, like cereal, corn syrup as a sweetener, cornstarch as a common thickening agent and vegetable oil. You can find corn in the majority of our ketchups, yogurts, pasta sauces and even salad dressings. Corn is also a common binder and filler for tablets and capsules, and is even used as a filler in hamburger patties, hot dogs and taco meat. When it’s not being grown for all of the aforementioned food, it’s grown to produce animal feed and to make ethanol for cars.

SOY: While soybeans can be eaten directly by humans and are used in tofu, textured vegetable protein, infant formulas, processed meats, protein bars and vegetable broth, most soy is crushed to produce vegetable oil, byproducts such as lecithin (a natural emulsifier), and protein-rich soy meal that is primarily used as livestock feed. Soy oil is also used in consumer goods like chocolate and pre-packaged drinks and smoothies as well as in our cosmetics, soaps, and is also used as biofuel.

WHEAT: Wheat provides the majority of our calorie intake. We can find it in breads, cereals, breading in prepackaged meals, flours, pizza, pasta, baked goods, and is once again a common processed food filler and used as animal feed.corn cropPhoto by Julian Schöll on Unsplash

How do these foods affect our health?

A diet that is largely made up of these three foods isn’t uncommon. In fact, two-thirds of our calories come from these foods, and unfortunately it’s mostly coming from processed foods.

These crops are grown to be able to feed a growing population in the cheapest way possible; however, the same methods that make these foods cheaper also create a diet that is deficient in nutrients and actually detrimental to our health.

If we’re constantly eating the same three foods, the continual exposure to them increases the potential of allergens, which is why we’ve seen gluten intolerances and allergies on the rise. Corn, soy and wheat are the most allergenic ingredients in most diets, and it’s largely due to their being genetically modified (GMO) and sprayed with pesticides, both of which keep prices down and keep the crops desirable to food manufacturers. Since all three are also used for animal feed, these chemicals turn up in our milk and meat products as well, making them nearly impossible to avoid. Being exposed to pesticides and herbicides to this degree impacts human health and is a known link to cancers, depression, gastrointestinal conditions and neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

How do these crops affect our planet?

SOY: Over recent decades, soy has undergone the greatest expansion of any global crop. It’s high in protein and the most profitable agricultural crop, which is why it’s become a key player in our global food supply—but it has come at an environmental cost. As the demand for soy continues to rise, important ecosystems are being lost to the expansion of agricultural lands. In the last 50 years, the production of soy has increased from 27 to 269 million tons across a total area covering over one million square kilometres (combining the area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands). Soy production is a key component of industrial farming that poses a threat to forests, savannahs and grasslands of global importance.

CORN: Nearly one-third of all U.S. cropland is used for corn, which is known as a “thirsty crop.” Growing corn consumes a lot of water, especially in places with little rainfall where it requires irrigation systems. Corn is also a crop that needs more fertilizer than other crops, and there are parts of the corn belt where we’re seeing high levels of fertilizer pollution. This is where fertilizer runoff ends up in rivers and streams, contributing to a dead zone in aquatic life.

Based on a study by Brooke Barton, director of the water program at Ceres and author of the report Water and Climate Risks Facing U.S. Corn Production: How Companies and Investors Can Foster Sustainability, corn production contributes to 40 percent of water’s nitrogen pollution.

WHEAT: Over half of the environmental impacts of producing a loaf of bread comes from wheat cultivation. According to a research fellow at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, 60 percent of emissions come from the growing practices of wheat, including its need for energy-intensive machinery for tilling soil, harvesting and irrigation. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the other 40 percent is found in the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizers on wheat. As of 2012, 99 percent of durum wheat, 97 percent of spring wheat, and 61 percent of winter wheat has been treated with pesticides or herbicides. The use of pesticides and tilling practices deteriorates soil health by disturbing microbes and organisms, and making the conditions toxic for organic life.

soyPhoto by Kelly Sikkema on UnsplashWhat can we change?

NASA’s Earth Science News team reports that climate change will affect the production of these crops as early as 2030. As temperatures rise, there will be more stress on the plantsand based on how much we see these ingredients in our everyday lives, the impacts on the global agricultural system will be felt by everyone around the world.

The growing practices used are largely responsible for environmental damage, contributing to the inability to grow these very crops in the near future. Not only have these practices contributed to soil and ecosystem loss, but they are linked to a decline in pollination and forest and biodiversity loss, all which are further exacerbating climate change.

We can’t continue as normal when it means the loss of natural environments and available food for populations. Solutions do exist for the agricultural industry, and they include conserving biodiversity and crucial ecosystems that are vital to the health of the planet and people.


More genetic diversity and less GMOs: Monocrops (growing one single plant, like corn, in a plot) has negative impacts on ecosystem and soil health and function. There is evidence that monocrops can reduce agricultural production by eroding ecosystems and soil life that our plants depend on. Yields of corn and wheat have been proven to increase by up to 20 percent in highly diversified agricultural systems. It’s important when thinking of crop diversity that we’re reestablishing genetic diversity in our seeds as well. GMO seeds have been linked to further soil degradation, loss of diversity in seeds and plants, and a lack of nutrients in plants. Bringing back seed-saving, seed-sharing, and small-scale growing will improve our soil health and ecosystems while also increasing food production.

Better land management practices: Agriculture as we know it today deteriorates our water and soil health, but with better management like no-till practices, rotational meat-raising, using cover crops, and using organic pest management, we can restore ecosystems. Better management practices are known to improve soil health and productivity, while reducing the inputs of agrochemicals and water, mitigating negative environmental impacts.

Putting policies in place: Policies have been known to make a difference in agricultural systems, especially with corn, soy and wheat. In the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, they have successfully begun rewarding those who conserve natural ecosystems with crop growth and are taxing those who exploit environments. Putting policies in place to conserve forests and native vegetation can halt irresponsible expansion of agriculture production, and reward those who grow corn, soy and wheat sustainably.

Mindful consumption: Signing petitions, demanding for change, and taking individual action can absolutely make a difference. Knowing where and how your food is grown, reducing your processed food consumption, and reducing your overall food waste are ways in which we can put less of a strain on our global food system. If we eat as locally and mindfully as possible, we may continue to support sustainable growers and secure our planet’s food supplies.