For the past few years, while flying across the Midwest and driving through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, I have been a real pain in the neck to Gloria with my “Look at all that corn!” comments. From the air, I saw much more corn than cities. From the ground I saw corn sprawling into swales and wetlands, tight to fence lines and roads, on sandy hills that would not grow weeds, and up to farmhouse doorsteps.
Meanwhile, major environmental problems of a green algae carpeted Lake Erie and major dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal bays were thought to be caused by intensive farming practices. Were my anecdotal musings an indication of growth, or was I “seeing what I wanted to see.” I searched for some facts that people concerned about our environment, poverty, and the economy might find interesting.
I’ll tell a summary story.
Are we really producing more corn?
Since 1950, U.S. corn production has gone up about 7 fold to 14 billion bushels/year.
But with improved technology, has acreage really gone up?
Corn acreage has had its ups and downs. Since the 1990s, there has been a steady increase. The blue line is total planted and the red the acreage planted for grain. The difference is silage.
Let’s look at the effect of technology on yield. Since the 50s, yield has increased nearly fourfold.
And ….. shouldn’t this technology affect cost? It appears that corn price is more sensitive to market conditions than production cost.
How big is this business and what is happening to farm value?
Corn, grain corn, has approached becoming a $75,000,000,000/yr. business.
This phenomenal rise in price/bushel has driven up the price of farmland.
Is the demand for gasohol driving up these prices?
The percentage of grain corn going into alcohol has dramatically increased while sweeteners and other milled products such as cornstarch take a lower percentage.
So, what does all of this mean?
Apparently the demand for corn really has attracted corn to marginal land and changed agricultural practices. A large acreage farmer I visited in Indiana was regularly rotating his fields between corn and soybeans. With the high price of corn, the benefit of crop rotation was traded for higher application of pesticides. Corn at $5+ a bushel can support the cost of extra pesticide treatment and increased fertilization of marginal lands.
The retail price for gasoline on the Gulf Coast was $1.37 on 3/30/15. (ref: http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/prices.cfm)
At a yield of 2.8 gallons of alcohol per bushel, the corn cost per gallon from $5.00/bu corn is $1.79. Alcohol contains less energy than gasoline. Taxes, processing costs, and transportation must be added to the $1.79 per gallon cost. Economically, fuel from corn is a bad deal.
The “dead zones” of the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay are sad reminders of our failure to address agricultural pollution to the degree that we have addressed manufacturing pollution.
The sprawling of farmland into marginal lands requiring more chemicals and causing more runoff is causing major environmental problems in receiving waters. Lake Erie, for the past 5 years, has had very serious algae problems. The “dead zones” of the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay are sad reminders of our failure to address agricultural pollution to the degree that we have addressed manufacturing pollution.
There have been studies questioning the environmental advantages of corn to fuel as a savings in greenhouse gasses. When the amount of nitrous oxide produced from more intensive fertilization is considered, the hoped for benefits shrivel away. If the environmental impacts of algae in the Great Lakes and dead zones in our coastal waters are considered, is corn to alcohol an environmental detriment? Dead water does not remove carbon dioxide from the air.
With the politically powerful farmers basking in storage bins full of $5+ corn and sitting on land values surpassing oceanfront properties, we probably will never change or even carefully assess the mistake of gasohol. These folks along with the subsidized producers will keep gasohol flowing no matter the environmental effect.
Isn’t it fun to see Iowa in the early sorting process of presidential candidates? Nobody gets out of Iowa without genuflecting to the God of gasohol. Is there any way the people can get back in charge of the country and its environment?
Another sad effect of increased corn price is its devastating burden on the poor. We experience the effect on our food cost in the exorbitant price of beef and a prime cut becomes a celebration instead of a regular occasion. For the poor, especially millions of Mexicans, corn is a dietary staple and a tripling of price is devastating to their wellbeing. Justice? Please give this some thought and urge action.