Saturday, April 18, 2009

King Corn

I watched the film King Corn again yesterday, this time with our LL.M. Agricultural Perspectives class. I was once again struck by the odd and unsustainable path our food and agricultural systems have taken.

We often hear farmers proudly and very sincerely proclaiming that their job is “to feed the world.” And, the productivity of American agriculture has been touted as the model for the rest of the hungry world.

But, as King Corn illustrates in such an entertaining and yet serious fashion, American farmers and consumers are caught in a system that makes little or no sense; one that is disconnected from any constructive food, farm, or environmental policy.

According to the USDA ERS Corn Briefing Room, "corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the United States, accounting for more than 90 percent of total value and production of feed grains." The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that corn production rose markedly in 2007 to over 93 million acres and is estimated to total approximately 85 billion acres in 2009.

As King Corn accurately evidences, however, farmers grow corn even when it is not profitable to do so. This is because government farm programs subsidize its production. According to the farm subsidy database provided by the Environmental Working Group with numbers provided by the USDA, “over the past twelve years, taxpayers have spent $56 billion on corn subsidies paid to over 1.5 million recipients, making it the top crop for federal assistance.”

The environmental impact of corn production is surprisingly absent in King Corn, but it is well worth mentioning. Because of the nutrient requirements associated with our intensive cropping systems, nitrogen and phosphorus run off is an increasing problem. Adding additional corn acres generally means 1) less crop rotation or 2) taking land out out of conservation use, both of which exacerbate the environmental problems. See, e.g., U.S. Corn Production Feeds Expanding Gulf Dead Zone. U.S. corn production requires significant fertilization, significant pesticide application, and in many areas, irrigation. It is by all accounts a resource consumptive crop.

Okay, back to feeding the world - that is why we want farmers to grow it, right?

The huge corn crop that we produce is not a variety of corn that can be eaten “as is” by humans. In order to make it into food, it has to either be fed to animals or processed, most often through an energy-consumptive industrial process, in order to make it edible. And, even farther removed from a hungry world, we are growing increasing amounts of corn for ethanol fuel production.

What are we feeding to the world with our corn? Let's put aside corn based meat production for another post and focus on the primary industrialized food product that comes most directly from U.S. corn production - high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This is hardly the product that is needed by a hungry world. According to the PBS website that accompanies King Corn, American consumption of sweeteners in food has risen by 19 percent since 1970. In 2003, the USDA estimated that Americans ate 79 pounds of corn sweetener per year—a four-fold increase from 1970.

Couldn't we develop a food and agricultural system that would encourage farmers to "feed the world" a crop that was good for them, a crop that could be produced and consumed without degrading the environment? Isn't that the kind of crop that the government should subsidize?

According to the USDA’s corn briefing room - "Research is continuing to expand the various industrial uses for corn and corn byproducts." The circular madness continues. We are developing more ways to use the crop that we are paying farmers to over produce at great harm to the environment. Let's shift the government research dollars that support this work over to developing a more sustainable food and agricultural system.


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