Drowning in corn

Fink's Farm: Corn Maze 3

Photo by IslesPunkFan [Neil R] via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Thanks to a recent Grist post from Tom Laskawy, I discovered a great essay that was featured in Scientific American. The piece, titled “It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System,” comes from Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Foley writes,

As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: how it dominates American agriculture compared with other farming systems; how in America it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup; how it consumes natural resources; and how it receives preferential treatment from our government.

The current corn system is not a good thing for America for four major reasons.

Those reasons, he writes, are: 1) “The American corn system is inefficient at feeding people.” 2) “The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources.” 3) “The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks.” And 4) “The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers.”

His expounds on each of these in his article, which is really worth a read, and concludes by suggesting what an alternative system might look like:

This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today.

As Laskawy describes in his Grist post,

color me pleased when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced at an agricultural conference that his agency was going to make a big push to increase crop diversity in order to make American agriculture more resilient in the face of a changing climate.

The term he threw around was “multi-cropping,” or growing a set of crops in sequence, rather than a single crop over and over (aka monocropping). Vilsack described some policies the USDA would need to adjust in order to, as he put it, “reduce the man-made barriers to multi-cropping.” He also held up as an example Ohio farmer David Brandt — a “mainstream” conventional farmer who has a national reputation in farm circles for his multi-cropping and soil-building techniques.

Of course, there’s one major human-made barrier to multi-cropping that may present the greatest challenge to Vilsack’s plan. And that’s $8-a-bushel corn. If you’re multi-cropping, you’re growing less corn — which means that while multi-cropping may be a more resilient system, given current federal subsidy, crop insurance, and market levels, it’s likely to be a less profitable one.

For more, check out both Laskawy’s piece and Foley’s article.

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