Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Corn, ethanol, and our food future

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Jill Richardson has a good overview article on the upcoming food crisis in the US and the extent to which monoculture agriculture, with a focus on just two varieties of corn, has exacerbated the situation:

Farmer George Naylor sounds a little too much like the fictional character Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh when I ask about his corn crop. June is usually a wet month, but not this year. One time it “rained” so little it just barely wet the bottom of his rain gauge. Add that to several days of triple-digit temperatures that accelerated evapotranspiration (water loss from his soil and his crop) and his corn is in a sad state. But he’s actually relatively lucky because he is in Iowa, which got some rain early in the season. Farmers in Illinois and Indiana are faring much worse.

The 2012 drought is now the worst drought [3] our country has faced in half a century. As of the end of June, a third of the nation was in severe to extreme drought, and more than half faced moderate to extreme drought. All in all, June ranks as the 14th warmest and 10th driest June on record. By the end of July,the USDA had declared [4] 1,584 counties in 32 states as primary disaster areas, making farmers and ranchers in those counties eligible for federal relief programs. Analogies to the Dust Bowl are becoming common.

Most of the time, Americans don’t need to worry much about how the food gets to our table and whether the weather has anything to do with it. It gets hot, and we put on the air conditioning. It doesn’t rain for weeks on end, and we celebrate the sunshine. But now, the fate of the corn crop on Midwestern farms even has comedian Stephen Colbert worried [5]. Agricultural economist Bruce Babcock appeared on his show, warning him that the prices of meat, dairy and eggs will increase because “American livestock are fed a corn-heavy diet.” As Colbert put it, “It is one thing for global warming to make sea levels rise, but nobody told me it would make my cheese levels recede.”

Now is perhaps a good time to reflect on the extent to which the entire American food system is built on one crop – corn. And within that one crop, we rely on a very narrow range of genetics; although there are more than 250 known genetic races of corn, the U.S. almost exclusively relies on just two of them [6]. Because the U.S. is the world’s number-one producer, consumer and exporter of corn, global food prices are also linked to America’s ability to grow corn. This year, we are going to find out what happens when the crop fails in many parts of the country. Now is a good time to ask ourselves: is it smart to bet the global food supply on a few varieties of one crop grown in one country?

Within the U.S., every state except for one (Alaska) grows corn, but the corn is concentrated geographically in the Midwest. Two states, Iowa and Illinois, grow more than 30 percent of America’s corn (measured by acreage). Add in three more states (Nebraska, Minnesota, and Indiana) and you’ve got nearly 60 percent of U.S. corn. Another six states (South Dakota, Kansas, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Michigan) can also be considered major producers. These 11 states grow more than 80 percent of U.S. corn, mostly without irrigation, and right now half of them are severely suffering from the epic drought.

Where does all the corn go? Well, we aren’t eating it on the cob. Most of the crop is split between livestock feed and ethanol production with a smaller percentage going to exports and smaller amounts still going to produce foods we actually eat directly like high-fructose corn syrup. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the percent of the crop that goes to produce ethanol.

Experts debate how much biofuels impact food prices, but a few trends are clear. As we’ve devoted more and more of our corn crop to ethanol, corn prices have gone up [7]. Once upon a time, prices hovered around $2.50 per bushel. Now they are well above $7 per bushel. Jeffrey O’Hara, an agricultural economist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, recalls when organic corn sold for $4 per bushel just a few years ago. Now it is going for $16 per bushel. “People are going to start wondering why they don’t see organic milk at the grocery store,” he says.

With corn prices so high, farmers have devoted more and more acreage to growing corn. Perhaps when prices were lower, a farmer might have rotated between corn and soybeans, but now he might choose to grow corn every year. Maybe in the past she would have enrolled some of her more marginal land in a conservation program, earning money to keep the land in prairie instead of growing corn there, but now it is more profitable to grow corn on that land. As a result, U.S. farmers are growing more acres of corn than any other year since the bad old days of the Dust Bowl.

But U.S. corn production has not only increased because of increased acreage. Since 1960, the U.S. has increased average corn yields [8] from around 60 bushels per acre to over 160 bushels per acre. Yields of over 200 bushels per acre are not unheard of. But this has come at the cost of genetic diversity. By selecting corn seed for yield and yield alone, the U.S. has sacrificed other valuable traits – like, perhaps, drought tolerance.

In recent years, the already narrow range of corn genes has been impacted by a lack of competition in the seed market.  Together, Monsanto and Pioneer control about 70 percent [9] of the corn seed market. Pioneer, now owned by DuPont, has been a giant in the market for decades as it was the first company to commercialize hybrid corn nearly a century ago, but Monsanto is a relative newcomer.

As it jumped into the corn seed market, Monsanto bought up major corn seed companies like Holden’s and DeKalb. The acquisition of Holden’s was especially significant as Holden’s produced inbred lines of corn seed and sold them to independent seed companies around the U.S. The independent seed companies then used those inbred lines to produce and sell their own hybrids. Monsanto now not only controls a huge share of the market, it also has the means to deprive independent seed companies of the germplasm they once relied on.

Globally, the U.S. produces more than 40 percent of the world’s corn. Next in line is . . .

Continue reading. Our food system is not in good shape and is under the control of a very few companies who will doubtless seize the opportunity to grow profits rather than food. And these companies seem to have considerable control of Congress and the USDA and other regulatory agencies.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 August 2012 at 8:39 am

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