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Corn: Used and Abused

The Tragic Abuse of Corn By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 20 July 2005

The wheel it has circled, time without end, Old life remembers, and welcomes the grain.

For the corn and the seed are one and the same, That which has been, will be again.
-- from Demeter's Hymn by Lyn Hubert

They are exalted for a little while, but are gone and brought low; they are taken out of the way as all others, and cut off as the tops of the ears of corn.
-- Job 24:6

It was one of those things that you can't quite believe is real. I was flipping through a magazine and saw an ad for a stove that burns corn kernels. For heat. Corn is food, not fuel, I thought, but the ad assured me that "Corn is replenished annually. It is a never-ending energy source, and thus is the new alternative fuel of choice."

Something about it felt very wrong to me. Burning food does not seem respectful. Especially when there are two billion people in the world who don’t get enough to eat.

But it is more than that. Corn production uses tremendous amounts of fossil fuel for mechanized labor, irrigation, drying, transport and fertilizer. I sincerely doubted that corn as a fuel could be renewable on a sustainable basis.

Almost one quarter of America’s farmland grows corn - maize. At nine billion bushels a year, it is our single largest crop and uses vast amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizer. Erosion and toxic runoff from the fields pollute waterways and kill fish in the Gulf of Mexico where a plume of pollution from the Mississippi Delta creates an ever-expanding dead zone. Raising corn the way we do it today depletes the soil of nutrients and creates an addiction to nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas.

Since natural gas prices went up a few years ago, we are producing less and less fertilizer here and importing more of it from the Persian Gulf. Now we must worry about food security as well as energy security.

Burning corn in a stove may seem bizarre, but it is no more bizarre than fermenting and distilling it into ethanol to burn in our cars. As gas prices go up, people are looking to ethanol and other biofuels to substitute for oil. Unfortunately, it is a bad bargain - one that is being encouraged by giant agribusiness firms like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto that reap huge profits from corn and taxpayer’s wallets.

Corn is already America's most heavily subsidized crop, sucking up about $10 billion a year (according to OXFAM) along with all that water and fertilizer. About 13 percent of the corn crop is now devoted to ethanol production, but that would increase dramatically if the Energy Policy Act of 2005, now in a House-Senate conference committee, were to pass. The Senate version of the energy bill would require US ethanol production to more than double - from 3.3 billion gallons in 2004 to 8 billion gallons by 2012.

Subsidies hide the true monetary cost of production, but the big accounting scandal here is the energy accounting. A study by Cornell ecologist David Pimentel and UC Berkeley engineer Tad Patzek found that when all the inputs to farming and ethanol production are accounted for, ethanol uses 29 percent more fossil fuel energy to produce than it yields in your gas tank.

This figure does not include the work to restore the soils and waterways degraded and polluted by industrial agriculture. In a separate report, Patzek estimated that the energy cost of restoration is seven times the energy output of the ethanol.

On the global warming front, Patzek found that the corn ethanol produced in 2004 would generate 11 million more tonnes of CO2 than would be emitted by burning the equivalent amount of gasoline instead. The best way to combat global warming would be to retire more farmland and help restore it to natural grasslands and forests, which are the most effective sinks for carbon sequestration.

The energy bill title that increases ethanol production is called "Renewable Content of Motor Vehicle Fuel." It defines "renewable fuel" as fuel that is produced from grain, starch, etc., that "is used to replace or reduce the quantity of fossil fuel present in a fuel mixture used to operate a motor vehicle."

By this definition, ethanol is clearly not a renewable fuel. Not only does it not replace any of the fossil fuel used to operate a motor vehicle, it actually increases the quantity of fossil fuel used because the ethanol embodies so much fossil fuel in its production. We would use less fossil fuel and produce less greenhouse gas by burning the fossil fuel directly in the motor vehicle.

John McClelland of the Corn Growers Association, and Michael Graboski of the Colorado School of Mines, have disputed a previous analysis by Pimentel. They say Pimentel’s figures are outdated; corn output today is higher and energy inputs are lower than they were a decade ago. But crop yields are subject to the whims of nature, and with global warming now in the equation, who can say that yields won’t drastically decrease? Or that more irrigation and more energy won’t suddenly be needed?

Last month, the UN reported that one in six countries face food shortages this year, mostly from drought brought on by global warming. And it is not just Africa: Spain and Portugal have both applied to the UN for food assistance.

In any case, Pimentel’s new report with Patzek is based on current data and still reaches the same conclusion - ethanol uses more energy than it yields. They say investments in solar energy and vehicle fuel efficiency are where we should put our money.

One output that Pimentel and Patzek do not appear to account for is the leftover distiller’s mash that amounts to about one third of the original corn weight and retains most of the oil, protein and micronutrients. This mash is suitable for animal feed. This is helpful, but more than half of US corn production already goes into the meat industry, another tragic industry that disrespects our fellow creatures, destroys land, and promotes an unhealthy, meat-heavy diet.

But the worst abuse of corn, to my mind, is the way the food industry has crammed High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) into every possible food product. HCFS is an industrial product that was perfected in the 1970s and introduced into the food system in the early 1980s. Almost immediately, Americans started putting on weight, with obesity doubling by 2000.

Food processors love HFCS because it is cheap (to them, as it is subsidized by our taxes) and it mixes easily. It also helps baked goods brown evenly and prevents freezer burn. Consequently it ends up in just about every processed food product on the market.

HFCS has made headlines for its use in soda and fruit juice. Combined with a large jump in soda consumption by children, it is implicated in childhood obesity and skyrocketing rates of diabetes.

HFCS is not a natural product. Corn processors claim it is chemically identical to cane sugar except for an extra five percent fructose over glucose content - ordinary cane sugar is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. But researchers at UC Davis and the University of Michigan found fructose turns to fat more readily than glucose and it increases the level of triglycerides in the bloodstream.

HFCS may be only slightly more toxic to the body than cane sugar, but apparently that is all it takes to manufacture an abysmal health crisis that is destroying children’s health. Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to put warning labels on soft drinks containing HFCS. The industry response was predictable, harping on the rhetoric of "freedom" to attack the labeling proposal. "This is nothing but another freedom-sucking proposal from CSPI," said the industry spokeswoman. "The nutrition nannies are at it again."

About five percent of US corn production now goes into HFCS. To expand this market, producers are looking toward Mexico, which just lost a WTO dispute over its attempt to protect its sugar cane production from dirt cheap HFCS.

Here our corn is being used as a weapon to subjugate the underdeveloped world, which relies heavily on income from sugar cane. (Industry has done other terrible things to Mexico’s corn producers, the worst of which may be the genetic pollution of the original strains of maize, developed over thousands of years and sacred to the Maya, but that is the subject of another story.)

From where things stand today, it would be better to let the corn producers divert their product away from poor Mexico and the sweetener market and into our gas tanks where it will do less harm than it does in our bodies.

Sooner or later we must face the fact that our agricultural production systems need a radical overhaul. With far fewer inputs of fossil fuels and far less damage to the environment, organic agriculture that mimics natural ecosystems can produce nearly as much food as industrialized agriculture. In that context, it might make sense to brew up a limited amount of ethanol to run farm equipment and generators. The kind of change we need is not a revolution in technology, but a revolution in our thinking that embraces the practice of sustainability.

To us, sustainability is just another word, but for millennia, the common man and woman lived it. Corn, as a generic term for all kinds of grains, was life. The great round of the agricultural year set the meter of life as the baby seed corn was coaxed to sprout, coddled to maturity and finally cut down and laid tenderly to rest in the granary, only to rise again in the spring. In his classic work, The Golden Bough, James George Frazer documented the rich panoply of ritual and festival celebrating the "corn mother" ("corn" being that suffused European peasant culture right up until the 20th century. This pagan "earth worshipping" culture existed right alongside Christianity because no peasant could afford to lose the blessing of the corn mother. The ancient European tradition says that the corn mother, dressed in white, could be seen at midnight, flying over the fields and fertilizing them. She would pass by the fields of any farmer who sinned and his corn would wither and die.

The farms of industrial agriculture are not sustainable. When the fossil fuels are gone, their corn will wither and die.

If we still believed in the corn mother, and if we could hear her speak, I believe she would tell us to leave the soda in the can and the SUV on the showroom floor. She would also recommend that we raise less corn and more hell.

Kelpie Wilson < is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. Her first novel, Primal Tears, is forthcoming from North Atlantic Books in Fall 2005.