We have become a corn dependent nation. My wonderful angel and girlfriend has suggested that I write about this subject and the title is hers.
A corn dependent world. Corn is in the gas that fuels our vehicles and it is the most common sweetener in the form of high fructose corn syrup. It is now becoming so expensive due to its use as biofuel that people are rioting in places like Haiti of the cost of corn in its most basic use as a food.
What we think of, when we think of corn, is Corn on the cob, canned corn, and the frozen corn we eat. More recently we think of Biofuel, a seemingly benign use of corn. In Brazil they have become a Biofuel economy, the USA and in Europe it has become popular and senators have touted it as the path to energy independence.
From Foreign Affairs the excerpt from an article in 2007
“Summary: Former Senator Tom Daschle argues that corn-based ethanol offers many benefits — and few downsides for food stocks. Runge and Senauer reply.
How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor
By C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer
Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007
MYTH VERSUS REALITY
The article “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor,” by C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer (May/June 2007), recycles the “food versus fuel” mythology that has been rebutted time and again. Despite the authors’ allegations, the facts are clear: U.S. corn is used to feed mostly animals, not people; converting the starch from a portion of the U.S. corn crop into biofuels is an efficient way to reduce the United States’ dangerous dependence on imported oil; and the recent firming of grain prices in the United States — and therefore the world — will help, not hurt, farmers in food-deficit nations. Most important, current production facilities for grain-based biofuels are a critical platform for launching the next generation of advanced cellulosic and waste-derived biofuel technologies.
There are a number of possible reasons for this (none of which Runge and Senauer cite). One of them is that only about five percent of the U.S. corn crop is used directly for human food; much of the remaining 95 percent is used to feed livestock. Another reason is that ruminant animals, such as beef and dairy cattle, get more nutritional value out of feed made from ethanol co products than out of other feed. The benefits are less great for monogastric animals, such as swine and poultry, but the market can still get the most bang for the bushel by converting the starch in corn into ethanol and then using the protein co products from ethanol plants for ruminants’ feed rations.
To be sure, short-term market gyrations will require adjustments, as was the case in response to the recent hikes in prices for tortilla flour in Mexico cited by the authors. But this will be a short-lived challenge because the market will rapidly respond to the increased demand for corn by encouraging farmers to plant more of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that there will be as many as 90 million acres of corn planted this year in the United States and tens of millions of acres more planted in South America and elsewhere. If history is any indication, productivity per acre will increase year after year as technology improves the characteristics of seeds, including their starch content and ability to ferment. And in the medium term, of course, feed stocks other than corn, including nonfood cellulose, will become increasingly important as inputs for biofuels.
The legislation promoting a low-carbon fuel standard now being considered by Congress will attract investment for next-generation facilities that convert animal waste and other waste (replacing fossil fuel inputs) into biogas and biofertilizers. As energy costs rise, farmers will increasingly rely on low- and no-till cultivation techniques. And as their incomes improve, they will have more capital available to employ other environmentally friendly techniques. An acre of corn, one of the rare plant species to use a carbon-dioxide-efficient photosynthesis system, removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than does an acre of mature Amazonian rain forest, and next-generation biofuel technologies — including those using nonfood cellulosic feed stocks — will increasingly contribute to the critically important goal of reducing, as the author Michael Pollan has put it, humans’ “carbon footprint.”
RUNGE AND SENAUER REPLY
Senator Tom Daschle’s comments reflect his longtime commitment to promoting corn-based ethanol as a member of Congress and now as a lobbyist for the ethanol industry. Whatever our differences with him over biofuels, they are not about politics; we supported his last race for senator from South Dakota. Nor are our differences due to a lack of familiarity with agriculture. We have spent careers in Minnesota analyzing agricultural trade and its impact on the environment and on markets for food. Finally, we agree with Daschle that corn-based ethanol will be at best a partial solution to our current energy needs.
But we disagree with Daschle on four of his points: [Ed. Note: I list three, you can read the article for the fourth and more] that U.S. corn is fed mostly to animals with few implications for people, that the conversion of corn into biofuel is an efficient way to reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign oil, that higher grain prices will help farmers in food-deficit nations, and that the current corn-based ethanol industry will be a platform for the next generation of biofuels, which will be made from cellulose and waste materials.
First, we, too, know that meat-producing animals eat more than half of the U.S. corn crop. But people do eat chicken, eggs, pork, steak; drink milk; and consume foods containing cornmeal, corn oil, and corn sweeteners. U.S. consumers spend over 20 percent of their food budgets on meat, eggs, and dairy. And the share of the corn crop used to produce ethanol will rise from less than ten percent in 2004 to an expected 20-25 percent of the crop next year. As more acres are devoted to corn, fewer acres are available for other types of dairy feed, such as alfalfa, or for table vegetables, such as green beans. As a result, milk and vegetable prices are rising. And as acres are bid away from soybeans and turned over to corn, the price of soybean-based feed is also increasing, adding to the pressure on meat prices. In March 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast that demand for ethanol would push the prices of poultry, pork, and beef higher. The Wells Fargo economist Michael Swanson noted in June 2007 that the rising costs of corn and soybean feed also “have a direct and significant impact” on “oils, cereals and bakery products.” Corn-based ethanol, Swanson concluded, “is indeed responsible for the increased rate of food inflation” (even though it is not its sole cause).
Second, even if every single one of the roughly 90 million acres in the United States devoted to growing corn goes into ethanol — leaving none for feed, exports, or other uses — corn-based ethanol would meet only 12-15 percent of the country’s transportation fuel needs. Hence, ethanol’s contribution to reducing U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum today is marginal at best.
Third, higher grain prices are translating into an increase in the prices of staple foods around the world. For some, this effect could be another way beside trade liberalization to raise the incomes of poor farmers. But the ethanol boom’s distorting effects on commodity prices are hardly a substitute for expanded market opportunities for farmers in food-deficit nations. By definition, a food-deficit nation buys more food than it sells and hence is negatively affected by price increases. Most of the three billion people living on less than $2 a day are subsistence farmers with little or no surplus to sell or urban slum dwellers who consume but do not produce food. As consumers, they lose. Higher prices may induce more grain production abroad, but unless wealthy nations agree to import this grain by granting expanded market access to poor producer nations, it will be of no help to them. Finally, as the need for corn for ethanol production cuts more and more into U.S. corn exports, the United States is increasingly trading an export in which it has a tremendous comparative advantage (corn) for a product in which it has a comparative disadvantage (ethanol), especially vis-à-vis Brazil. This disadvantage is precisely the reason the United States has a 54-cent-a-gallon ethanol import tariff.”
See my posting ‘Biofuels Cause World Food Shortage’ from a week or so ago to see information about a recently leaked report from the World Bank about the rising price of food being directly attributable to corn being diverted to Biofuel use.
Riots in Haiti probably don’t raise too many eyebrows in the developed west where racist perceptions have led to a discounting of the value of human life in the third world and especially the black third world. But it is a concern for policy makers when the World Bank directly contradicts people like former Senator Daschle and soon to be former president Bush, in their claims that Bio fuel has almost no impact on the price of corn.
Another issue that has been in the news from time to time is the pollution from agricultural run off from corn production. In an article in the National Catholic Reporter, not exactly your typical foam at the mouth eco-terrorist publication there was this article about the poisoning of our water supply by our friend corn, in part.
“Water: Tapping a strained supply
By PATRICIA LEFEVERE
“Water is the axis issue that intersects the world’s greatest challenges, from health, poverty and security to climate, immigration and environment, even financial and commodities markets,” said J. Carl Ganter, director of Circle of Blue, a network of journalists and scholars concerned with water issues worldwide. “We’re just beginning to grasp the stresses on our world’s water supplies.”
From its pristine start in Lake Itasca, Minn., until it flushes out into the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans, the Mississippi River runs through or borders 10 states, gathers in the waters of its chief tributaries — the Ohio and Missouri rivers — and gouges a 2,300-mile water highway of vital economic and recreational commerce for the nation.
Years of bad farming practices in the northern zone of the river — Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri — have dumped sediment, fertilizers and pesticides into streams, creeks and rivers that flow into the Mississippi with each rainfall.
The runoff endangers the health of river users, and ends up downstream in the Gulf of Mexico where it has produced a “Dead Zone” the size of Connecticut. In summer, cloudiness from suspended sediments blocks out sun and oxygen to certain plants and fish, upsetting the aquatic food chain.
As fishermen and shrimp boaters see it, farmers in America’s heartland are increasingly threatening the livelihoods of those who work in the Gulf.
Last October, the National Academy of Sciences called the Father of Waters “an orphan” whose state and federal caretakers have failed to protect it. In a detailed study by the Academy’s National Research Council, titled “Mississippi River Water Quality and the Clean Water Act,” the researchers urged the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce existing standards curbing phosphorous and nitrogen pollution.
Although the Clean Water Act of 1972 halted the dumping of industrial waste and city sewage into U.S. waterways, the act had little jurisdiction over farm chemicals and urban runoff. Moreover, states along the river have failed to set consistent pollution standards, allowing varying amounts of fecal bacteria, PCB contamination and sediment into its waters.
“The EPA has to insure adequate interstate cooperation,” said Gretchen Bonfert, program officer for the environment at the McKnight Foundation, which funded the report. “They’re the ones responsible for protecting water quality.”
Ten years ago the EPA urged states bordering the Mississippi to adopt specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution entering the river. It warned that it would impose its own limits if the 10 states had not complied by 2001. But to date, states have ignored the mandate with few or no consequences from the federal government.
“We’re not clamoring for new regulations; we’re asking for enforcement of the EPA’s existing regulations,” said Bonfert.
U.S. agricultural policy has long rewarded farmers who plant wheat, soybeans and corn while little compensating crop growers who use less fertilizer, reduce soil disturbance and employ better conservation practices. Although “corn for ethanol” may raise farmers’ income temporarily, it can have devastating long-term effects on America’s premier waterway and on the Gulf, Bonfert told NCR. “We shouldn’t have to do a tradeoff between energy and drinking water.”
There is much more on that subject that I will treat later. But back to Corn and its immense usefulness in to the American way of life.
In this story from the “Georgia Straight” We have this about food monoculture, the rice crisis and corn.
“Monocrops bring food crisis
By Alex Roslin
Move over, peak oil and global warming. A new crisis is exploding right now across the developing world: peak food.
Rising costs for staples like rice have sparked unrest across Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa this month, including food riots in Haiti that have killed five, strikes in Jordan, and rice-hoarding in the Philippines and Hong Kong.
Exploding fuel prices are largely to blame for a 65-percent jump in the cost of food globally since 2002. But that’s not the main reason for the current crisis. Ground zero is in the world’s rice bowl in Southeast Asia. A nasty epidemic of disease and pests has struck Vietnam, the world’s third-largest rice exporter, sharply cutting supplies of the food staple of half of the world.
The problems in Vietnam have quickly rippled beyond its borders. In neighboring Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, the price of medium-grade rice for export has doubled since the beginning of the year. In the Philippines, the world’s largest importer of the staple, the government has deployed soldiers to guard rice stocks, while President Gloria Arroyo has threatened to jail for life anyone who steals supplies.
Some exporting countries have started to limit rice sales abroad in order to build up domestic stocks, and the UN says food riots due to exploding prices for rice and other staples have hit a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, with 37 countries altogether facing food crises.
What caused the disease and pest outbreak in Vietnam? Some rice experts have said that’s unclear. “We’re faced with a lot of unknowns,” said Robert Zeigler—head of the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute, which developed high-yield rice strains in the 1960s—in an Agence France-Presse dispatch. “The fact is, they got taken by surprise and they had some significant yield losses that they were just not expecting.”
Devlin Kuyek begs to differ. He says the cause is no big mystery. It’s monoculture. Kuyek is the author of a book titled Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada, which came out in December. He says the rice crisis is an example of the food-related calamities we can expect in growing numbers due to a looming “perfect storm” combo of self-imploding crop monocultures and global warming.
The new crops were bred in government labs—and today, by a half-dozen large seed companies that control the bulk of the $30-billion U.S. annual seed business worldwide—in order to maximize yield, not other characteristics, like, say, nutritional value. “They try to do the Coca-Cola or Pepsi of corn: one crop that could be sold everywhere,” Kuyek says. “What you see in corn today is nothing like what you saw before, traditionally. They’ve industrialized that crop to the hilt. It’s quite sad because it had so much nutritional value. You could essentially just live on corn.”
Because the new monocrops were poorly adapted to local conditions, the plants didn’t do so well unless sustained by massive amounts of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Little wonder that almost all of the world’s largest seed companies, including the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, got their start as chemical manufacturers.
“A lot of diseases that had never been a problem started appearing during the Green Revolution,” Kuyek says. “All of a sudden, instead of adapting seeds to local conditions, the farm had to be adapted to the seed variety.”
The result of all this has been a tremendous loss of biodiversity. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says 75 percent of crop varieties have disappeared since 1900. Nine-tenths of the world’s calories now come from 20 crop species, with four making up half of total calories: rice, corn, wheat, and potatoes.”
I am going to provide you a link to this article because has a lot of good information about food biodiversity. It is much longer and has a lot of good information.
Am I trying to scare you? Remember the stories of the Irish Potato Famine? Do you want me to remind you? And yes, I am trying to scare you. Scare you into action. We need to keep this world from going to the dogs. Not that I have anything against dogs, despite my skepticism about a story about the death of super dog being appropriate fare for the lead story on NPR I am an animal lover, vegetarian, mostly and a believer in animals rights to procreate. I guess you could call me pro life. A good Catholic position. I am against animal euthanasia. Although I have been known to swat at flies and gnats, I have qualms even about that. But I am saying that we need to see the link, capitalism-industrialism-global pollution-oil dependency-monofood culture-militarism-war. It is all linked and the more we depend on these junk foods, the more we are going to depend on the blood of American boys and girls to defend our right to consume ungodly amounts of just about anything to our hearts content. I don’t think that obesity was what the founding fathers had in mind when they said we had the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I think the French may have gotten it better with their Life, Liberty and Fraternity, after all how many fat Frenchmen do you know? But I hear that has changed with the explosion of McDonalds and Burger Kings over there.
At least in India the have the good sense to burn down the fast food outlets when they try to open in most communities. I wish we had more sense here. But perhaps it is not too late, we can remember the inspired youth of 1968 and their slogans “La Beaute Est Dans Larue” or in America, “Do you deserve a Brick Today?”
Perhaps if we spend more time in the streets and less in front of the tube, we will shed some of that excess baggage. Corny as it may seem, we are not made to be consumers, we are made to be lovers. Don’t forget to come to the Southern California Peoples Library Sat. July 19th at 3 pm and join myself and European thinkers and workers in a discussion on how to revive the spirit of 68. See you there I hope.