Commentary | The cult of corn

How one crop is wreaking havoc on our environment

I spent last summer near the seat of American power in Washington D.C. As I got off the metro each morning at the teeming Capitol South station, I was bombarded with poster advertisements featuring photographs of smiling farmers standing in sunny, modestly sized fields. These people are the face of the American corn industry: the Corn Farmer’s Coalition. Perhaps it is a coincidence that this corn propaganda is displayed to key lawmakers, or, perhaps, (and more likely) it was a strategic move made by an organization that represents influential special interests in the U.S. The coalition’s advertisements enthusiastically show people exactly what they want to see: a harmless crop that has wholesomely sustained us since the first Europeans arrived in the “new world.” For the sake of our at-risk environment (to say nothing of our health, society, economy, the list goes on) we should question the happy façade that the corn industry presents.

Recent years have seen tremendous change in agricultural industries. We have undergone what author Michael Pollan calls “cornification” without even realizing it. Everything from farmed-fish to automobiles to soft drinks can exist on the scale that they do thanks to corn. The United States alone grows enough corn to cover an area of land that is double the size of the state of New York. The “Corn Belt,” comprised of Midwestern states such as Illinois and Iowa, produces 80 per cent of this crop. We would be wrong to assume that the corn-on-the-cob as we know it is the reality of most contemporary corn. In 2008, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that 5,250 million bushels of corn went to livestock feed, whereas only 327 million went to direct human consumption. In addition to the tremendous proportion of corn used for livestock feed, corn is increasingly used to make bio-diesel and high-fructose sweeteners.

The sheer immensity of the corn industry gives it the ability to devastate our natural world if the crop is grown irresponsibly. In relation to other produce, modern genetically modified corn requires a substantial amount of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. These chemicals are made with fossil fuels, and, accordingly, do not come without a cost – each bushel of corn is treated with half a gallon of fossil fuel (12.1 billion bushels were produced in 2008). The environmental story does not end with the crop being sufficiently drenched in millions of pounds of chemicals, the next step involves these chemicals making their way into groundwater and down the Mississippi River, eventually flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. The result of this is an ever-increasingly massive body of toxic water known as the “Dead Zone.” This 12,000 square-mile area is where marine life comes to die. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 210 million pounds of nitrogen enter the Gulf each year. Fertilizer also causes exponential growth of sea algae, which sinks to the bottom of the ocean and creates an oxygen-depleted environment that leads to the death of species such as oysters and crabs. Efforts to contain the runoff and create buffer zones have been futile. Of course environmental consequences like these are insignificant when big business commandeers policy.

The environmental fallout also includes the excessive amount of energy used to power the machinery plants, fertilizes, and harvests all of this corn, leading to a larger carbon footprint. Additionally, there is an incredible amount of water needed to produce corn. Especially as it relates to ethanol production, corn is a water-inefficient crop, often requiring more than 100 litres of water to produce one liter of corn-based ethanol.

Prospects for our ecosystem are bleak when one considers that the demand for corn has exponentially grown in recent years. It is no surprise that, in 2007, more than 90 million acres of corn were planted for the first time since 1940s. Initially, bio-fuels were embraced for their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, there is a huge energy cost associated with both converting the grain with coal into ethanol and shipping it. Motivated to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, the U.S. federal government subsidizes corn on a massive scale. A recent farm bill provided $4 billion annually to corn farmers. The U.S. government – to the satisfaction of groups like the Corn Farmers’ Coalition – have mandated a nearly three fold increase in ethanol usage over the next decade. But we must ask ourselves: at what cost?

With so much private interest and promotional campaigning, it is truly difficult to gather information on the subject. In 2010, Monsanto, a multinational corporation that produces genetically engineered seed, spent more than $8 million  on lobbying. We are a part of an industrialized food system that prioritizes profit needs over environmental needs. We must see past the veneers of smiling corn farmers in advertisements and pleasant packaging in grocery stores. It is on us to become responsible consumers and make decisions that our planet can sustain – and corn is just one component of an extensive problem of exploitation.

Jacqueline Brandon is a U1 History student. She can be reached at jacqueline.brandon@mail.mcgill.ca.


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