America’s corn addiction

A USDA report says the U.S. will grow plenty of corn in 2012, but use and growing methods mean prices are high

Topics: Agriculture, USDA, The American Prospect, corn, drought,

America's corn addictionYoung funny girl eating a boiled corn
This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture released a report on the state of the country’s corn, and the verdict is not good. The report—the first that estimates production based on surveying the fields of U.S. farmers—shows that farmers are on track to produce 10.8 billion bushels of corn this year, a 17 percent drop from last year. This summer’s drought has parched King Corn: some ears have only a few sweet kernels to offer, others droop, brown and defeated.

The American Prospect

10.8 billion bushels is still a lot of corn. The USDA report notes that this year’s harvest could be the smallest since 2006. What it doesn’t point out is there are only two years in U.S. history prior to 2006 where the country produced more corn than it will produce this year. Those years were 2004 and 2005.

Even with the drought, America will grow and harvest more corn in 2012 than in almost any time in its history.

But, the near-record crushing 10.8 billion bushels isn’t enough to keep corn-happy Americans well-fed. Corn prices are higher than ever, and corn-based foods like meat, cereal, and anything made with corn syrup are going to get more expensive. To understand why this year’s corn harvest is such a disaster, it is necessary to look at the unprecedented way the United States is using and growing corn.

Over the past seven decades, American farmers have become increasingly efficient producers of corn, using less land to reach higher crop yields. But in 2012, corn isn’t just what’s for dinner—it feeds cars, trucks, and planes too.

Ten years ago, about 10 percent of the country’s corn crop went into making ethanol. Now, 40 percent does, and in 2010, for the first time ever, more of the country’s corn was turned into fuel than was fed to livestock. To feed that demand, American farmers planted more acres of corn this year than in any year since 1937.

In 1937, however, total production came in at 2.35 billion bushels of corn — about a fifth of 2012’s projected production. Yield came in at 28.9 bushels per acre. In the intervening decades, agribusinesses have developed pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified plants that allow each acre to produce more corn. This year, even with the drought, the average yield for corn is expected to be 123.4 bushels per acre, the worst yield in 17 years sure, but also a better yield than in any year prior to 1992.



The increased demand has finally surpassed our ability to produce it, and completely altered our expectations of corn yields. And climate change promises more years like this one, a reversal of the steady increase in commodity crops produced that has characterized American agriculture for decades.

A change in the country’s agriculture system isn’t necessarily a bad turn of events. America’s unhealthy obsession with corn has galvanized healthy food advocates, who argue it’s warping our diet, and agribusiness opponents, who argue that growing as much corn as possible has led to the overuse of pesticides and the spread of genetically modified crops. Lower corn yields could perhaps force America to face up to these problems—to eat less meat and more vegetables, while depending less on corn-based everything.

The problem is that lower yields won’t necessarily make farmers abandon the system that elected corn king of American agriculture. They’re more likely to expand—to find more land on which to grow corn, at lower rates per acre.

To keep the country from turning into one giant cornfield, two options remain: keep yields high or cut demand for corn. There are ways to try to boost production in ever-more frequent drought years. Instead of rigging the genes of corn plants to resist poisonous pesticides, researchers are working on rigging those genes to resist drought. This tinkering doesn’t turn corn into a cactus-like plant, capable of surviving the most dread heat. But the modified corn can make it a few weeks longer in blistering conditions. The hope is it will be long enough for some rain to fall.

Organic farming techniques also show promise. The Rodale Institute’s been running an experiment for decades in which conventional and organic commodity crops are grown side by side and the yields measured, and they’ve found that, in dry years, the organically grown crops yield more.

But it’s not clear that those strategies could keep yields as high as they are now. But they don’t need to be. Demand for corn is so high in part because so much of it is going into ethanol production. It’s never been clear that corn-based ethanol was a smart technology to pour money into and now it’s edging towards obsolescence. Corn-based biofuels aren’t particularly energy-efficient, and pouring less of the country’s corn crop into fuel production will lighten demand in years when corn crops do badly—like now. Corn-based ethanol could soon be replaced by next-generation biofuels, made from switchgrass or algae, and renewable energy experts, like Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute, argue that even cellulosic biofuels should be used sparingly, for vehicles like trucks and planes that can’t be electrified.

It’s nice for corn farmers to have an additional market for their product, but this year’s drought has made it politically palatable to oppose ethanol: Americans don’t like giving up their cheap meat, and a bipartisan group of Senators , led by Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have taken the opportunity to speak against the ethanol mandate, in the form Senators know best—a strongly worded letter to the EPA. It’s not much, but it’s enough to have the ethanol industry jumping to defend the current system.

This isn’t to say we should take all the corn we can grow and turn it into hamburgers. But it’s not often that Americans are forced to acknowledge that this country’s resources are in fact limited, and that we can’t have everything we want, all at once. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that they also recognize climate change is only going to make those limits more obvious.

Sarah Laskow is a reporter in New York City.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>