Sunday, February 19, 2012

More on Earlier Pollan Post: Corn as King

So I've received some pushback from a couple of good brothers who are a part of my weekly community group. These brothers have brought into question whether eating grassfed beef and its initial increased expense is truly more advantageous than feedlot beef. Another brother questions the accuracy of some of my descriptions of what happens to a cow that ends up on the feedlot.

Well, since I was basically summarizing Pollan's book, much from memory, I thought I'd go back and at least build Pollan's argument on a more detailed level; that way, I have less of a chance of misrepresenting Pollan. This will be the first of two more posts on the Pollan book. The first will be on "Corn as King" and the second on "The Feedlot."

So the first thing to point out is that an entire 1/3 of Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma is devoted to the history of corn and its development in our country. Though I've not yet viewed the documentary "King Corn," I've heard that it makes a similar case to Pollan's. What is Pollan's main point? The industrial development of first generation hybrid corn (F-1 seed) as well as GM (genetically modified corn by companies such as Monsanto), has led to a harmful and unsustainable cycle of corn farmers needing substantial federal subsidies (paid for by taxpayer dollars) as well as the excessive use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer (AMF) to increase crop yields. F-1 corn responds extremely well to AMF and produces yields that are more than a hundredfold from what was the case less than 100 years ago. However, the damage to our environment and our health (among other things) is significant. So I've tried to summarize Pollan's thoughts. Having never been raised on a farm (unlike my good brothers who are giving me some friendly "pushback"), I will try to present Pollan's argument the best I can and leave our agreements and disagreements to be leveled at Michael Pollan (how's that for letting myself off the hook? :-)):

  1. in 1920, a farmer could produce about 20 bushels of corn per acre (same yields as Native Americans historically).
  2. Hybrid seeds came on the market in the 1930s and by the 50s, yields were in the 70-80 bushels of corn per acre.
  3. Today modern F-1 hybrids can yield over 200 bushels of corn per acre.
  4. There was more diversity to a typical Iowa farm until the mid 50s when soaring corn yields gave way to more and more land being given over to corn.
  5. Starting at about that time (1950s), cheap corn made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead on grass and to raise chickens in giant factories rather than on farmlands, so cattle and chickens disappeared from many local farms.  By the 1980s, the diversified family farm was history in Iowa, corn was king.
  6. Planting corn on corn year in and year out brought plagues of insects and disease, so chemical weed killers became necessary.
  7. In 1947, the huge munitions plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama switched over to making chemical fertilizer.  After the war, the government had a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate (AN), the principal ingredient in making explosives.
  8. Ammonium nitrate is also an excellent source of nitrogen for plants, so agronomists in the Department of Agriculture turned their surplus of AN to the chemical fertilizer industry.
  9. Prior to the chemical fertilizer industry, corn yields were much lower simply because the nitrogen in the soil that came from rotating crops and livestock manure was significantly limited.
  10. To this point, “what had become a local, sun-driven cycle of fertility in which the legumes fed the corn which fed the livestock which in turn (with their manure) fed the corn, was now broken.  Now a corn farmer could plant corn every year and on as much of his acreage as he chose, since he had no need for the legumes or the animal manure.  He could buy fertility in a bag,...” (p. 44-45).
  11. “More than half of all synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn, whose hybrid strains can make better use of it than any other plant.  Growing corn, which from a biological perspective had always been a process of capturing sunlight to turn it into food, has in no small measure become a process of converting fossil fuels into food....  When you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it take to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it- or around fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn.” (p. 45).
  12. Today it takes more than 1 calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food.  Before the advent of chemical fertilizer, the ratio was 2 calories of food energy for every 1 calorie of invested energy.
  13. Now we need about 100-180 lbs of synthetic nitrogen per acre, but if applied the wrong time of year or you get run off from rain, a farmer puts down a little extra to “just to be safe,” some evaporates into the air, some gets into the water table.  Pollan claims that in Des Moines in the spring when nitrogen run-off is the highest, there are “blue baby alerts” warning against using the public municipal supply.  
  14. Iowa State University estimated it costs roughly $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn.  In October 2005, the Iowa grain elevators were paying $1.45 a bushel.  How do these economics work?
  15. Farmers feel pressure to apply more nitrogen seeking to squeeze a few more bushels from their soil, but the more bushels the farmer produces, the lower the prices go pushing further the perils of overproduction (terrible cycle enslaving farmers, making many go bankrupt).
  16. The plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverished farmers continue to degrade the land from overproduction, pollute the water and bleed the Federal Treasury which now lends up to $5 billion a year in subsidizing cheap corn.
  17. Who benefits?  The subsidy checks go to the farmers (to cover the gap), but the buyers of the cheap corn are the ones who make the killing on the market (Cargill and Coca-Cola for example).  
  18. All the while, corn that is genetically modified to produce its own pesticide ( helps produce larger yields than ever before (even moreso than F-1 hybrids) but causing health problems at many levels being unhealthy seeds as they are,... Monsanto being the biggest culprit here as the leading producer of genetically modified seed.

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