In short, the corn crop is highly productive, but the corn system is aligned to feed cars and animals instead of feeding people.
There are a number of ways to improve the delivery of food from the nation’s corn system. First and foremost, shifting corn away from biofuels would generate more food for the world, lower demand for grain, lessen commodity price pressures, and reduce the burden on consumers around the world. Furthermore, eating less corn-fed meat, or shifting corn toward more efficient dairy, poultry, pork and grass-fed beef systems, would allow us to get more food from each bushel of corn. And diversifying the Corn Belt into a wider mix of agricultural systems, including other crops and grass-fed animal operations, could produce substantially more food—and a more diverse and nutritious diet— than the current system.
The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources. Even though it does not deliver as much food as comparable systems around the globe, the American corn system continues to use a large proportion of our country’s natural resources.
In the U.S., corn uses more land than any other crop, spanning some 97 million acres— an area roughly the size of California. U.S. corn also consumes a large amount of our freshwater resources, including an estimated 5.6 cubic miles per year of irrigation water withdrawn from America’s rivers and aquifers. And fertilizer use for corn is massive: over 5.6 million tons of nitrogen is applied to corn each year through chemical fertilizers, along with nearly a million tons of nitrogen from manure. Much of this fertilizer, along with large amounts of soil, washes into the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems along the way. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest, and most iconic, example of this.
And the resources devoted to growing corn are increasing dramatically. Between 2006 and 2011, the amount of cropland devoted to growing corn in America increased by more than 13 million acres, mainly in response to rising corn prices and the increasing demand for ethanol. Most of these new corn acres came from farms, including those that were growing wheat (which lost 2.9 million acres), oats (1.7 million acres lost), sorghum (1 million acres lost), barley, alfalfa, sunflower and other crops. That leaves us with a less diverse American agricultural landscape, with even more land devoted to corn monocultures. And according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, roughly 1.3 million acres of grassland and prairie were converted to corn and other uses in the western Corn Belt between 2006 and 2011, presenting a threat to the waterways, wetlands and species that reside there.
Looking at these land, water, fertilizer and soil costs together, you could argue that the corn system uses more natural resources than any other agricultural system in America, while providing only modest benefits in food. It’s a dubious trade-off—depleting natural resources to deliver relatively little food and nutrition to the world. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Innovative farmers are exploring other methods for growing corn, including better conventional, organic, biotech and conservation farming methods that can dramatically reduce chemical inputs, water use, soil losses and impacts on wildlife. We should encourage American farmers to continue these improvements.
The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks. Although a large monoculture dominating much of the country with a single cropping system might be an efficient and profitable way to grow corn at an industrial scale, there is a price to being so big, with so little diversity. Given enough time, most massive monocultures fail, often spectacularly. And with today’s high demand and low grain stocks, corn prices are very volatile, driving spikes in the price of commodities around the world. Under these conditions, a single disaster, disease, pest or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system.