An article in Scientific American (found here) from 2013 discussed America’s corn system and its future viability. One of the more overlooked culprits of climate change is the agriculture sector, and that includes not only land cleared for livestock but also corn. Compared with other U.S. crops, corn has very high yields and grows in many parts of the country, most significantly in the Midwest and Great Plains. This was realized some 150+ years ago and is what has converted much of the land in central U.S. to agricultural cropland. Corn can be turned into a host of other products such as food, animal feed, into ethanol, or even plastics. Corn has served as a pillar for American agriculture but some are now questioning the undeniable monopoly corn has on our nation’s agriculture, how it consumes natural resources, and how the corn system receives preferential treatment in the form of legislation. The article suggests four principal reasons why the U.S. corn system is doing more harm than good.
The corn system is inefficient at feeding people.
Roughly 40 % of U.S. corn is used for ethanol (mainly blended with gasoline as a biofuel) and nearly 36 % is used as animal feed. Again, over 75 % of our country’s corn does not even see the dinner table. Much of the remaining corn is exported, leaving little to feed our nation. The overwhelming majority of that corn is served to Americans in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. The average Iowa cornfield has the potential to sustain 14 people (on a 3,000 calorie-per-day-diet) but with the current allocation to ethanol and animal feed we result in roughly 3 people per acre (lower than the average food delivery to other countries). Clearly, the current corn system is rigged to feed cars and animals.
The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources.
In the U.S. corn spans 97 million acres, an area about the size of California. This cropland also requires a large amount of freshwater, ~23 trillion liters. This is in addition to the 5.6 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer applied to grow the corn, which has ramifications on our nation’s lakes, rivers, and coastal oceans. Whats more is between 2006 and 2011, the amount of cropland for growing corn in the U.S. increased by more than 13 million acres, likely a result of increased ethanol demand for biofuels. However, some point to the pros/cons of using ethanol
as a biofuel. America is loosing other crops (e.g. wheat, oats, barley) in lieu of a corn monoculture. A recent study (found here) discovered that 1.3 million acres of the 13 million acres came at the expense of converting grassland and prairie into corn cropland in the western Corn Belt. Threatening our nation’s biodiversity and ecosystems by using significant natural resources is bad for business.
The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks.
Industrial-sized scale of growing corn may be profitable but a single disaster, disease, pest, or economic breakdown could cause a major disturbance in the corn system. This would affect food prices, feed prices, and energy prices. Who pays the bill when things go sour? Taxpayers! You would not invest in a mutual fund dominated by one company because it is very risky but clearly we are with America’s agriculture and love of corn. In an age of climate change, can our corn system withstand what nature throws at it?
The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers.
Between 1995 and 2010 U.S. crop subsidies to corn totaled roughly $90 Billion, not including ethanol subsidies and mandates. Even in the midst of record sales subsidies are still paid out. Should taxpayers be responsible for paying out some $20 Billion in subsidies each year? This is not the fault of farmers, who are providing for the demand of Americans, but rather a failure of the larger corn system. We should seek to support farmers to reduce runoff, prevent soil erosion, improve biodiversity, and provide jobs for rural America. A more sustainable method for producing corn is needed in an effort to address many of the concerns outlined.
Bottom line is we need a new approach to corn.
“But the corn system, as we currently know it, is an agricultural juggernaut, consuming more land, more natural resources and more taxpayer dollars than any other farming system in modern U.S. history. As a large monoculture, it is a vulnerable house of cards, precariously perched on publicly funded subsidies. And the resulting benefits to our food system are sparse, with the majority of the harvested calories lost to ethanol or animal feedlot production.”