Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Case Against Corn

Scientific American makes it:
Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported.  Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.
Yes, the corn fed to animals does produce valuable food to people, mainly in the form of dairy and meat products, but only after suffering major losses of calories and protein along the way. For corn-fed animals, the efficiency of converting grain to meat and dairy calories ranges from roughly 3 percent to 40 percent, depending on the animal production system in question. What this all means is that little of the corn crop actually ends up feeding American people. It’s just math. The average Iowa cornfield has the potential to deliver more than 15 million calories per acre each year (enough to sustain 14 people per acre, with a 3,000 calorie-per-day diet, if we ate all of the corn ourselves), but with the current allocation of corn to ethanol and animal production, we end up with an estimated 3 million calories of food per acre per year, mainly as dairy and meat products, enough to sustain only three people per acre. That is lower than the average delivery of food calories from farms in Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam.
There's a lot of other interesting data in the article.  Read the whole thing.  One thing that caught my eye towards the end was this:
 It is important to note that these criticisms of the larger corn system—a behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government—are not aimed at farmers. Farmers are the hardest working people in America, and are pillars of their communities. It would be simply wrong to blame them for any of these issues. In this economic and political landscape, they would be crazy not to grow corn; farmers are simply delivering what markets and policies are demanding. What needs to change here is the system, not the farmers.
A lot of livestock farmers really work hard.  But grain farmers who concentrate on corn and soybeans?  We'll put in a lot of hours in a compressed amount of time, but hardest working people in America?  I don't know.  I think most folks would sign up for corn, soybeans and Florida.  But, hey, I'll go along with hardest working people in America, it sounds good.

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