Mining for Corn: Friend or Foe? by Michelle Lancaster

            Recently, corn has become a multipurpose product. What once was a wild grain is now a booming business of food and fuel. Government regulations in support of subsidizing ethanol and the push for corn plastics have led to a surge in non-food uses for corn. Quickly growing populations around the world strain the food network. Farmers continue to feed corn to their animals, but at an ever increasing cost. The additional demands for corn and a limited supply each year of production caused both corn prices and the amount of land being used for corn to soar, and a profit oriented “Green Revolution” expanded.[1] Many question the implications of using a food source for non-food purposes, but they are just becoming aware of the fact that growth of corn has many negative implications as well. Abusing the natural properties of corn and farmland for commercial purposes will lead to major environmental and health ramifications and act as a strain on our food system.

            Corn historically comes from the Western Hemisphere and played a major role in agriculture for thousands of years.[2] Humans developed corn from the wild grass teosinte. As a modern corn plant and teosinte grow, they are very comparable in appearance.[3] Teosinte has only 2 rows of seeds, no cob, and has many stalks per plant. Corn has 8-12 rows, a cob, and one stalk with ears. Natural characteristics of teosinte include a dark colored hard shell around the small seed which can survive until suitable growing conditions arise. As humans adapted teosinte, changing to Indian maize and later modern corn, the wild grain became a staple food source of much different composition.[4]  

Historical records show that Natives in the Massachusetts region taught the pilgrims to plant each maize seed with herring as fertilizer.[5] This provides an early clue that corn is demanding on nutrients in soil. One factor in the Green Revolution is the maximizing of fertilizers and pesticides to maximize crop yields. Modern corn requires a high amount of fertilizer to grow each year compared to other crops.[6] For example, to grow 120 bushels of corn on one acre would require the application of 140 pounds of Nitrogen fertilizer.[7] That same potential land, put in soybeans, would require 114 pounds of Nitrogen.[8] An established Alfalfa legume hay field would require zero Nitrogen fertilizer. Fifteen acres of corn demands 2,100 pounds of Nitrogen. One ton of commercial Nitrogen requires over 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas for production.[9] Alfalfa fixes the soil with nitrogen from the air and all hay and pasture land provides ground cover year round which reduces erosion and moisture loss. Legume and grass land requires minimal to no chemical application, so the land benefits from a resting period as well as reduced soil erosion. If farms corn land to alfalfa land, they could eliminate a substantial amount of energy waste, plus reduce the toxic load that nitrogen and other farm chemicals supplies the land with.

The digestible nutrient content of corn for a ruminant is similar to that of alfalfa legume hay.[10] Ruminant stomachs contain four compartments, built to digest fiber. In order to maintain a balanced pH, ruminant stomachs require stems and long fibers, which are slowly regurgitated and digested over a long period of time (up to 16 hours) in order to activate saliva and maintain a neutral pH.[11] Corn provides energy, but no long-stemmed fiber, so a good majority of corn, and even chopped corn silage, is not digested properly by the ruminant. Too much grain such as corn can easily cause acidosis which imbalances the digestive system and leads to severe illness and death. Studies have shown that alfalfa is a superior feed for dairy cattle over corn silage.[12] If baled properly, alfalfa can provide a dairy cow with a suitable energy source over corn and improved digestion without the need for commercial fertilizer application.[13] Farmers and scientists may argue that corn and grain mixes can be used for up to 100% of bovine diet for non-lactating animals. The truth is that corn equates out to quicker growth and profit in the short term but leads to serious health problems and shortened lifespan for animals intended to live over 2 years of age. The high price and appealing profit from corn is highly reducing hay and pasture land.

The conversion of land into corn fields erodes soil at a rate faster than it can naturally be rejuvenated. The flow of nitrogen into the oceans has doubled since 1860, mostly from nitrogen fertilizers.[14] Nitrogen contamination leads to eutrophication, which is a process where algae feed off the nitrogen and bloom, rapidly expanding, until the surface of the water is mostly covered. This blocks photosynthesis from occurring, and drastically reduces the ability of the water system to function, killing a high percentage of native species.[15]

Chemical applications for corn have led to many unintended consequences. In addition to nitrogen, the growth of corn demands many other chemical applications. These include, but are not limited to: phosphorus, potash, lime, insecticides, and herbicides.[16] Supplements have their own potential list of detrimental effects on the environment.[17] More concerning is the use of synthetic chemicals pesticides that cannot filter naturally through the earth’s system. Plants and animals reproduce rapidly and can adapt genetically to resist pesticides in as little as 5 to 10 years.[18] The USDA approves chemicals for public use and application, yet their own studies show that less than 2 percent of insecticides and less than 5 percent of herbicides reach their intended targets.[19] The rest of the chemicals are spread out into the environment, where they lay dormant until a living creature ingests them. Pesticides are fat soluble, meaning they are stored within the fat of organisms that consume them. In addition, pesticides resist being broke down by the liver.  Pesticides accumulate within the bodies of the animals as organisms are consumed higher and higher along the food chain.[20] There is no way to remove the pesticides from the bodies of the animals. Pesticide residue is linked to a number of cancers and poisoning, and government recorded pesticide levels have raised drastically in the past 20 years.[21] More food crops are lost to pests today than in the 1940’s, even though U.S. use of synthetic pesticides has had a 33-fold increase.[22] A number of insecticides do not target only one species, therefore they end up killing natural predators and parasites in addition to eradicating their intended insect.[23] Aquatic ecosystems are inadvertently harmed by pesticides when insects (food for larger creatures in the water) are infected and killed by genetically modified pollen or plant parts that contain insecticides such as Bt.[24]

Genetic modification (GM) is the process where genetic code of a plant, animal, or other organism changes by way of biotechnology.[25] Natural methods of breeding include direct line breeding or hybrids. In pure breeding, one plant or animal breeds with the same species of plant or animal to produce similar offspring, and those offspring can then breed with others of the same group to maintain similar genetic lines. Hybrid breeding takes two purebred plants or animals and breeds them together for different traits in the offspring. Hybrids do not breed reliably. Genetic modification differs from natural breeding methods in that humans are the ones changing the genes, and quickly creating the resulting offspring, which can lead to interesting predicaments. GM and hybrid crops are one more step in the Green Revolution to increase global food supply.

The genetic modification of corn created new and different corn plants with the intention of “improving” corn as a food and fuel source. Worldwide, population levels are expected to keep increasing dramatically due to improved health and wellness among developing nations.[26] Therefore, governments and groups are pushing farmers to produce more food, and to produce that food on fewer inputs, even though a study has shown that poor people elect to spend a good portion of their money on foods that are not nutritious, regardless of availability.[27] GM corn can be developed faster than natural methods of breeding and will grow more corn seeds with less water, can include pesticide resistance, and can grow in a shorter time period.[28]

The most notorious company for GM crops, Monsanto, has worked hard to maintain their domination in the GM crop development field. Monsanto bought out other competition, acquired GM patents, and required farmers to sign an application that they would never re-use Monsanto GM seed, but would buy new seed from Monsanto each season.[29] Unfortunately, Monsanto has also dominated the court rooms, winning law suits they started against farmers when their copyrighted genetic material showed up in non-Monsanto contracted fields due to pollen and seed dispersal.[30] The power and financial stronghold of the Monsanto company dominates over individual small farmers, regardless of who is at fault. The domination of Monsanto over GM information has led to much public speculation and questioning. Monsanto’s research is kept classified, but some documents have been released at the demand of European courts. A group of French scientists reevaluated information in a study done by Monsanto on the effects of GM corn varieties on mammal health. The new study found distinct signs of toxicity, with strong links to the GM corn.[31] Monsanto’s scientists had concluded that GM corn in the study posed no risk to human health, but later removed their rebuttal from their website, so no reference can be given.

Monsanto comes to their own conclusions on testing and their website refutes public conception that GM crops may need more studies before public consume these new products by stating, “There is no need to undertake lifetime animal cancer studies for GM foods that contain new DNA, RNA, and proteins with well-characterized functions.”[32] Their “facts” do not include any information about Roundup, Bt, or other chemicals that are adapted into plants, and their conclusion is as absurd as stating, “Because that human has DNA, the AIDS virus in their blood should not be a consideration in a blood transfusion.” Monsanto and the government claim that biotech crops undergo more testing and regulation than any other agricultural crops.[33] If so, where are those studies on the long-term effects of GM crops on human health? Not all publicly available, and not all from impartial third-studies, that is for sure.

Interestingly enough, government studies have shown that allergies in children increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007.[34] GM crops were first grown for public consumption in 1996.[35]

The human body of a person attacks the protein of corn (yes, the same protein and DNA that Monsanto was quoted as saying is harmless) and sees it as an invader.[36] In another study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigated reports of illness after a GM corn called StarLink was accidentally released into the public food system. The study was inconclusive, the FDA remarked, “The difficulties of this investigation highlight the importance of evaluating the allergic potential of genetically modified foods before they become available for human consumption.” The public should accept nothing less, and the government must be held accountable for what they are allowing.

Meanwhile, organic seed growers are fighting back, suing Monsanto for the right to not be sued by Monsanto for seed contamination.[37] Confusing? Yes, it is. The organic growers do not want to be held liable for possible contamination of their organic seed through pollination with GM seed. They are trying to think ahead and avoid potential battles with Monsanto. Organic seed becomes invalidated if crossed with GM seed, so producers of organic seed have no useful purpose for Monsanto’s GM seed.  If anything, the growers should be suing Monsanto for contaminating our seed bank. If all the seeds on earth became contaminated with GM seed, we would risk a total loss of biodiversity. This may seem insignificant, but by protecting organic farmers, the public is one step closer to truly regulating GM seed.

While the chemicals for crop production are permanently poisoning American soil, and the unknown side effects of GM crops increase, countries search for alternative fuel sources. Ethanol, a fuel source made from corn, has a short shelf life and acts as a solvent, eroding the parts of the vehicle it comes in contact with.[38] Ethanol is at best one-third more energy efficient than the products needed to create it, according to government studies.[39] Those products include coal, natural gas, and petroleum, and have environmental issues of their own. Sweet potatoes are two to three times as efficient as corn, and with their much lower nutrient requirement and chemical application levels, they should be considered over corn for ethanol sources.[40] Remember, public taxpayer money funds these inefficient subsidized ethanol plants.[41] The public can demand of their government more efficient accounting and not at the expense of our food and land supply.

Corn for ethanol use rose drastically in the past few years and encourages the planting of more corn, which leads to a good majority of farmland being cultivated with only a few types of crops on large plots of land, called monocrops.[42] Monocropping will serve to erode and destroy the most valuable asset in countries, especially America: our land. Of the approximately 50,000 species of edible plants on earth, 14 supply around 90 percent of the world’s food calories.[43] Corn makes up over 95 percent of grains fed to animals in the United States.[44] Farmland makes up 86 percent of Iowa acreage and corn covers 42 percent of that farm acreage.[45] Two crops, corn and soybeans, make up over 75 percent of Iowa farmland. Removal of grasslands and timber reduces the earth’s ability to store carbon. Corn, a major member of monocrops ideology, is also destroying the health of humans indirectly through the feed of animals.

The price of corn, because of government subsidies for ethanol production and overall global demand, has skyrocketed. Higher corn prices lead to more land being put into corn and existing land being used more intensely, in some cases too intensely. In 1911, 24.4 bushels per acre of corn land was reported in the United States. In 2010, U.S. acreage boasted 165 bushels per acre, or a 575% increase.[46] At those levels of production and profit and the high price of the market, more land is put into corn. Even if corn is not suited to that piece of land, farmers choose to plant the profitable crops over others.[47] Most of that land in corn is being degraded significantly. Iowa has lost 99 percent of the state’s original wetlands, mostly due to farming.[48] Cover crops such as sod, hay, and pasture are being converted to corn and will increase erosion issues.[49] Less hay and pasture provide less food for cattle, which will become more dependent on grains. Those grains are currently so expensive that they are nearly cost-prohibitive to farmers. Either the price of meat, eggs, and milk will have to dramatically rise or those food systems will continue to decrease at rapid rates. Some predict that U.S. milk and beef will soon be sourced primarily from other countries, which have much different levels of regulation than the U.S. Intensive corn growing also discourages crop rotation.

Crop rotation is a method of rotating crops on a piece of land. George Washington pioneered crop rotation in America and saw the negative long term effects of crops that are demanding on the soil (back then, cotton and tobacco). Crop rotation is the method of rotating the type of plants grown on a particular piece of farmland for the purpose of diversification and enriching the soil. This could mean year one a corn crop, year two a wheat crop, year three a soybean crop, and year four through seven an alfalfa crop. Rotating crops in fields allows for natural nutrient and pest management. Insect and blight infestation can devastate monocrops, because nothing provides a barrier to stopping the pests. Legumes such as soybeans and alfalfa fix nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for commercial fertilizers for corn. Crop rotation is one method of combating the problems on monocrops.

At a high price, petroleum needed for synthetic nitrogen will be very expensive, forcing farmers to think before spreading. Progressive Farmer magazine quotes an Ohio State University extension agent as saying, “When nitrogen is cheap, the biggest mistake a farmer can make is being short [on nitrogen].”[50] The mentality of using a product carelessly because it is “cheap” needs to be stopped. Additionally, a high price may encourage them to look at natural nitrogen sources or growing crops that do not require nitrogen. No-till cropping in combination with monocropping depends on a large amount of chemical use. Some farmers are profiling their soil and are finding ways of naturally improving soil in order to lessen their dependency on chemicals and grow healthier crops. Gail Fuller, in an interview with Furrow Magazine, explained his decisions for his soil. “When we started no-tilling 16 years ago, we were in a corn/soybean rotation and it wasn’t working very well, so we began adding more crop diversity by double cropping behind wheat. Now we’ve gone even further by using cover crop blends that include multiple species and even planting companion crops with out regular crops.”[51] This diversity of crops leads to a strong diversity of soil microbes in the soil which help break down natural fertilizers to be fully utilized. Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer, calculated that his increased organic matter provided $1300 per acre worth of natural fertilizer each year.[52] The constant crop coverage shades the soil, which leads to less water loss, and reduces erosion by having continuous root systems to hold the soil together. As Iowa farmer Lewis Byers states, “I’m farming for the future, not just today.”[53]

There are many methods, some already implemented and some hopefully to come that can reduce our need for growing corn. One way to use less corn would be to stop the production of corn plastics. While corn plastic is biodegradable, it is still a slowly composting product. Around 37 percent of municipal waste by weight is paper products.[54] By recycling paper and creating non-chlorinated paper bags, pollution and waste could be drastically reduced in both corn and wood lifecycles. The public needs to be accountable for their waste.

In order to meet current and future demands, a much larger amount of corn and other staple crops must be grown, although future needs highly outdistance future resources and land capabilities. Government subsidies on inefficient ethanol and harmful types of farming need to decline or cease. Genetically modified food needs to be taken off the market until research deems it safe, or at least confinement of GM foods to limit the spread and contamination of modified genes. Continuing to buy and support local agriculture reduces fuel needs. In addition, local production provides the opportunity for consumers to see their products grown and participate in some cases. Farming fills an important need for humans, to be an active part of the earth and life cycles. Talking to farmers and observing their practices locally will keep them accountable, and farmers can help rekindle a mentality of caring about the earth.

One way to protect the biodiversity of the earth is by encouraging a wider variety of crops. Saving seeds from a variety of plants will protect biodiversity, one of the main requirements for a sustainable lifecycle.[55] Preservation of local seeds can help encourage the rural poor to be able to grow local crops that are suited and adapted to particular areas.[56] This will help feed and educate the poor without the need of high tech industry, transportation energy, and chemicals.[57] After many years of being tried and tested, a seed becomes an heirloom. People develop heirlooms over many years. Some do not consider a seed heirloom until it is 50-100 years old. These seeds provide many beneficial qualities to gardening and farming. They are adapted to certain climates and resistant to many predators within their ecosystem. Each variety of seed is genetically independent of other seeds, providing a wide diversity and an inherent ability to adapt and change over time without threat of mass extinction. The majority of seeds and plants available 100 years ago are now extinct, but people can help preserve what is left and cultivate new varieties to improve the soil and human diets.[58] Many universities and sustainable organizations such as ATTRA continue to research and provide new methods and techniques for growing organic and sustainable crops.[59] These methods can be used on a business or home level. As consumer demand rises for sustainably grown corn and other products, governments and industry can be made to comply.

Is corn a problem? Yes! Is it corn’s fault? No. Corn is a victim in that it supplies the basic requirements for a variety of purposes, but the destruction of our only limited land supply is unsustainable and unacceptable. The public needs to demand that our food stay as food. We can find other ways to create and reduce energy. Exploiting corn is not the answer. The short term perspective is to feed people with modified corn and use corn as fuel. The long term perspective is realistically looking at how many people the world can sustain, how many crops our limited land supply can produce, and how we can protect the earth’s resources for future generations. While those two concepts are in conflict, the United States and other countries are pounding ahead, violating rules of biodiversity and growing corn as fast as they can. There is hope, if concerned citizens continue to speak up and demand accountability. Corn needs to remain a food source, to be used in combination with a wide variety of foods to produce a healthy, balanced diet that provides all the minerals, vitamins, and nutrients that people and animals need to thrive.

 

References

 

  • Indiana University. “Genetically Engineered Corn Could Harm Aquatic Ecosystems.” ScienceDaily. Posted October 10, 2007 http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2007/10/071008171030.htm
  • Reichenberger, Larry, “Serving 9 Billion.” The Furrow Magazine. February 2011. Kansas: John Deere Agricultural Marketing Center.
  • Spiroux de Vendomois, Joel; Francois Roullier, Dominique Cellier; and Gilles-Eric Seralini, “A comparison of the effects of Three GM corn varieties on Mammalian Health,” International Journal of Biological Sciences, 5 {2009}: 706, accessed 3-20-11. http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.pdf
  • State of Oregon. “E-10 (Ethanol) in Gasoline and Where to Find Non-Blended Gas.” Last modified 4-7-2010, http://www.oregon.gov/OSMB/news/E10.shtml

 


[1]Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 252.

[2] Iowa State University. “Origin, History, and Uses of Corn.”

[3] University of Georgia. “Maize Project – Ancestors of Maize.”

[4] NativeTech. “Native American History of Corn.”

[5] Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower, 101.

[6] Tad W. Patzek. “Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle.”

[7] Ohio State University. “Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations”

[8] Ohio State University. “Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations.”

[9] James Finch. “Ethanol, Fertilizer & Higher Natural Gas Prices.”

[10] Thomas W. Dowe, et al, “The Effects of the Corn-Alfalfa Hay Ratio.”

[11] Limin Kung, Jr., Ph.D., “The Role of Fiber in Ruminant Ration Formulation.”

[12] P.H. Robinson, “Estimating Alfalfa Hay and Corn Silage Energy Levels.”

[13]Terry L. Mader, et al. “Feeding Value of Alfalfa.”

[14] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 252.

[15] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 253.

[16] Tad W. Patzek. “Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle.”

[17] Brian Oram, PG. “Total Phosphorus and Phosphate Impact of Surface Waters.” Accessed

[18] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 296.

[19] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 296.

[20] Ag Care, “Agricultural and Pesticides Facts.”

[21] EPA, “Pesticide Residues in Food.”

[22] Miller and Spoolman, Environment,  297.

[23] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 296.

[24] Indiana University. “Genetically Engineered Corn Could Harm Aquatic Ecosystems.”

[25] CSIRO, “What is genetic modification (GM)?”

[26] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 125.

[27] “Hidden Hunger.” Economist, March 26, 2011, 70.

[28] Larry Reichenberger, “Serving 9 Billion.”

[29] Center for Food Safety. “Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers.” pg7

[30] Source Watch. “Goliath and David.”

[31] Spiroux, et al. “A comparison of the effects of Three GM corn varieties on Mammalian health.”

[32] Monsanto. “Food Safety.”

[33] USDA Agricultural Biotechnology. “How are Biotech Crops & Foods Assessed for Safety?”

[34] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC Study – Allergies.”

[35] Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo and Margriet Caswell. “The First Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.”

[36] Medical Articles. “Corn Food Allergies.”

[37], Ariel Schwartz. “Genetically Modified Showdown: Monsanto Sued by Organic Farmers.”

[38] State of Oregon. “E-10 (Ethanol) in Gasoline and Where to Find Non-Blended Gas.”

[39] Shapouri, et al. “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update.”

[40] Dave Comis. “Sweet Potato Out-Yields Corn in Ethanol Production Study.”

[41] Dave Koplow. “Biofuels – At What Cost?”

[42] USDA Economic Research Service. “Corn: Background.”

[43] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 279.

[44] USDA Economic Research Service. “Corn: Background.”

[45] USDA Economic Research Service. “State Fact Sheet: Iowa.”

[46] Eric Hodson, “Closing the Food Gap,”

[47] Deane Morrison. “Converting pristine lands to biofuel farms worsemsn global warming

[48] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 179.

[49] USDA NRCS. “Soil and Water Issues Related to Corn Grain Ethanol Production in Wisconsin.”

[50] Sherry Collins, “Adjust Nitrogen Recommendations.”

[51] Larry Reichenberger, “Building Better Soils,” 11.

[52] Larry Reichenberger, “Building Better Soils,” 12.

[53] Sherry Collins, “Ramp Up Rotations,” pf-1.

[54] Miller and Spoolman, Environment, 563.

[55] Miller and Spoolman, Environment,292; 279.

[56] Institute for Food and Development Policy. “Protect our seed diversity.”

[57]  “Saving the Seed Savers,” 35.

[58] Sustainable Table. “Heritage and Heirloom Foods.”

[59] ATTRA. “Sweet Corn: Organic Production.” ; Jeanine M Davis. “Organic Sweet Corn Production.”

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