Corn: It’s the Food Supply, Stupid

Al Gore finally concluded ethanol isn’t a good idea and conservative sources are gloating, for example “Al Gore’s Ethanol Epiphany: He Concedes the Industry He Promoted Serves No Useful Purpose.” The problem here is that while ethanol isn’t a good idea, both Gore and many of his critics typically fail to mention one extremely significant reason the current American ethanol process is folly: CORN IS FOOD.

In fact, it’s in so many American food products, I won’t even try to list them. Just read some labels at the grocery store if you don’t believe how ubiquitous corn is.

As someone who likes to eat on a regular basis, I worry about the air, the soil, the water, and the weather it takes to produce food and the resources it takes to distribute food. I long ago decided that I’d rather eat corn than drive around with it, but the Gore reversal and the reactions to it did little to convince me that the food supply was on the minds of those in power.

It’s sure on my mind because a number of factors point to lean times–dire times–ahead. How far ahead, I don’t know. Five years? Could be, but I’m not too worried. Ten? Now I’m starting to worry. By 2030 misery, possibly even world-wide misery, looks closer to being a sure thing. By mid-century–oi. Forget corn. Google “commercial fishing 2048” or something like that and find out what a good many project.

The future does not look bright for a number of reasons, among them carbon dioxide emissions that will continue to rise for a thousand years even if we were to stop driving cars and trucks today. However, our fossil fuel use is hardly the problem that worries me most. The rising human population does. Our problem is simple. We all like to eat, and, after eating, a good many of us like to do other things, one of which results in there being too many of us.

Ask any biologist what happens when a population continues to rise. If you don’t already know the answer, I suggest you read William Catton’s 1980 book Overshoot. It’s written for non-scientists and is still the best overview of the future I’ve ever read. When populations overbreed, they then eat themselves out of house and home. Those of us who live in developed countries have been skirting this Malthusian issue for a long time now. Fossil fuel fertilizers and fossil fuel-driven machines have allowed us to produce vast quantities of food and export our surplus to those less able to exploit the planet.

Kinda looks like that’s coming to an end because of increasing confluences of climate, consumption, soil-degradation, and water shortages. What happens if Hundred Year Droughts turn into droughts that come every ten years? We certainly can’t say that Russia’s recent drought was caused by climate change. It’s quite possible it was just a routine, devastating drought, something that happens every fifty or every hundred years or so. But what if it was not? What if climate change models are right and severe droughts become more frequent. We had a nasty drought here in Colorado in 2002.

In 2010, however, the farmers in my locale are rejoicing about the weather. On the 7th of November, an article titled “Crops Yield ‘Once in a Generation’ Payoff” appeared in the Longmont Times-Call. Whether or not they believe climate change is an issue, farmers certainly believe the weather is an issue. And they believe in luck. The article outlined how in 2010 Colorado “[c]rop prices . . . fetched what one expert called ‘once in a generation’ prices.”

“You’re looking at the trifecta: Sugar prices are high; corn prices are high; if you’re a dryland wheat farmer, prices are high,” said Mike Urbano-wicz with Colorado Commodities, an organization that buys and sells crops from Colorado farmers.

“To me, it’s once in a generation to have all this happen in the same year,” Urbanowicz said.

In June, corn producers were looking at getting in the mid-$3-per-bushel for their 2010 crop.

“Four dollars (per bushel) was a goal; $5 was an absolute dream,” Urbanowicz said. Corn is already a little more than $5 a bushel and may hit as high as $6.50, according to the National Corn Growers Association.

“A month ago, we saw a huge spike, and it just seems to be hanging around,” said Kent Peppler, a fourth-generation farmer near Mead who grows wheat, alfalfa, barley and corn, his biggest crop, on about 500 acres.

Urbanowicz said the spike in corn prices is due to a couple of things: The weak U.S. dollar increased the export of corn, and growing conditions in Colorado this year have been outstanding compared to some other states, such as Illinois and Indiana. [emphasis added]

(For comparison’s sake, Colorado is projected to produce about 171 million bushels of corn this year, while the two states mentioned above combine for about 4 billion bushels between them.)

Wheat prices also spiked because of a severe drought in Russia and the Ukraine, Urbanowicz said.

That comment about the Midwest caught my eye. So what happened in the Corn Belt, in states like Illinois and Indiana? According to MarketWatch “Corn and other grains futures shot up Friday after a U.S. Department of Agriculture report pointed to the tightest supply and demand balance for corn in 14 years.”

The Agriculture Department on Friday forecast a 2010-11 corn crop 3.8% smaller than government expectations just a month ago, as a hot Midwest summer preceded by floods in June takes its toll. . . . Following flooding in June, the Corn Belt suffered from a hot summer and, more importantly, warmer-than-usual nights [emphasis added] that interfered with corn’s ability to pollinate as it normally would, he said.

“Warmer-than-usual nights.” Haven’t computer models suggested that global warming results in warmer nights even more than warmer days? Aren’t warmer nights one reason cited for the world-wide decline in the frog population? (Google keywords: frog decline warmer nights) Learning that corn too was threatened by warmer nights was not welcome news.

But again, all this could just be a routine year. It’s still possible that humans and their toys aren’t behind warmer nights and other shifts. The current food prices could just be routine. But what happens if Russia’s drought hits the United states next year?

That would be bad enough without some other factors–like supply lines. For example, with the recent admission by the International Energy Agency that we reached peak oil in 2006 the food transport factor kicks in. It’s now increasingly likely that we will find a way to continue shipping food from one place to another to avoid mass famine. At least it’s becoming clearer to people like Al Gore that ethanol is a porky boondoggle rather than the key to our fossil fuel problems. I just wish it’d become clearer to more people that a planet with fewer people is the answer to our continued survival.

The bottleneck predicted by so many–by Catton, by E. O. Wilson (Google E. O. Wilson bottleneck), by many–approacheth. In a not too distant future, it’s quite possible that famine will sweep the United States the way it routinely sweeps Africa. Sooner or later, our farming luck will run out.



2 Responses to “Corn: It’s the Food Supply, Stupid”

  1. Michael Says:

    There is a problem with your reasoning. Neither you nor I would live too long on the type of corn that is grown in most corn fields.
    There are 5 types of corn, pop corn and sweet corn are the ones that most folks think of as food. Flint corn is the type used for tortillas and chips. Pod corn is a type not at all common and more like the ancestor type of corn. Then there is dent corn.
    The fields of the world are full of dent corn. Dent corn is grown mainly as an animal feed and industrial feed stock. It is short in niacin and thus not a good source of human food.
    So you see, all corn in not the stuff you eat. Thus corn is not always food.

  2. uncommonscolds Says:

    Good explanation of the types of corn.

    Perhaps I should have more precisely ephasized my point, which is that, considering the rising levels of population in the world, the types of corn we raise SHOULD be for people to eat.


    P.S. In its early stages though, dent corn, known as field corn around here, ain’t that bad. I’ve certainly nibbled on it.

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