The monolithic nature of corn production presents a systemic risk to America’s agriculture, with impacts ranging from food prices to feed prices and energy prices. It also presents a potential threat to our economy and to the taxpayers who end up footing the bill when things go sour. This isn’t rocket science: You wouldn’t invest in a mutual fund that was dominated by only one company, because it would be intolerably risky. But that’s what we’re doing with American agriculture. Simply put, too many of our agricultural eggs are in one basket.
A more resilient agricultural system would start by diversifying our crops, shifting some of the corn monoculture to a landscape rich with a variety of crops, pastures and prairies. It would more closely mimic natural ecosystems and include a mixture of perennial and different seasonal plants—not just summertime annuals with shallow roots that are especially sensitive to dry spells. Furthermore, it would include conservation tillage and organic farming practices that improve soil conditions by restoring soil structure, organic content and water holding capacity, making farming landscapes much more resilient to floods and droughts. The overall result would be a landscape better prepared to weather the next drought, flood, disease or pest.
The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers. Finally, the corn system receives more subsides from the U.S. government than any other crop, including direct payments, crop insurance payments and mandates to produce ethanol. In all, U.S. crop subsidies to corn totaled roughly $90 billion between 1995 and 2010—not including ethanol subsidies and mandates, which helped drive up the price of corn.
Today, one of the biggest corn subsidies come in the form of federally supported crop insurance. In fact, for the 2012 season U.S. crop insurance programs will likely pay out an estimated $20 billion or more—shattering all previous records. Amazingly, these record subsidies are being paid as corn just had one of the most lucrative years in history. Even with the 2012 drought, high prices meant that U.S. corn broke record sales figures. Do record subsidies make sense during a year of record sales?
Naturally, some farmers were hit harder by the drought than others, and crop insurance programs are intended to help them make up these losses. That’s a noble goal. But should taxpayers be paying higher prices for a crop that was never harvested?
It might be time to rethink our crop subsidy programs, to focus tax dollars where they will achieve the greatest public good. We should help farmers recover their losses during a natural disaster, making them whole again, but not gain from failed harvests at public expense. We should also consider helping all farmers who suffered losses, not just those growing only certain commodity crops. And we should look to support farmers for important things that markets don’t address, such as reducing runoff and erosion, improving soil and biodiversity, and providing jobs for rural America. Farmers are the stewards of our nation’s most fertile lands and should be rewarded for their work to carefully manage these resources.
Bottom line: We need a new approach to corn
As a crop, corn is an amazing thing and a crucial part of the American agricultural toolbox. But the corn system, as we currently know it, is an agricultural juggernaut, consuming more land, more natural resources and more taxpayer dollars than any other farming system in modern U.S. history. As a large monoculture, it is a vulnerable house of cards, precariously perched on publicly funded subsidies. And the resulting benefits to our food system are sparse, with the majority of the harvested calories lost to ethanol or animal feedlot production. In short, our investment of natural and financial resources is not paying the best dividends to our national diet, our rural communities, our federal budget or our environment. It’s time to reimagine a system that will.