by Marion Nestle
Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
  • I see an anomaly. A few years back, “cheap corn” was a mega issue in the food movement (Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc. King Corn, Fresh, and globally (export dumping). And yet that context is missing here.

    Ok, so cheap corn is currently fixed (or rather gone for now). Great! (But the celebration is not mentioned.) But note also that all of these new issues weren’t mentioned in the earlier stuff.

    Except for some, like the National Family Farm Coalition, IATP, Food and Water Watch and other leaders of the farm justice (family farm) movement, as they’ve always balanced (in perspective and policy) price floors and ceilings, cutbacks in production (as needed) plus reserve supplies.

    The brief framing here seems a bit misleading. First, the family farm system was built with grain AND livestock farms, a balanced perspective. Second, the farm justice movement lacked a sufficient consumer side movement during decades of massive confrontation of agribusiness. One alternative to policy has been to balance corn (losing money 1981-2006, USDA-ERS Commodity [full] Costs and Returns) with ethanol investments. It spreads the risk, as one OR the other might make a profit. And neither party has opposed it (as the Democrats dropped the nonsubsidy Farm Justice of the Harkin-Gephardt farm bill, when Harkin became Senate Ag Chair).

    Unlike ethanol investing farmers, Corp mega giant ADM has favored cheap corn. (Note: the American Corn Growers Association [not “National”] is strong against cheap corn, export dumping.)

    Balance? Too many livestock interests opposed adequate grain reserves, as it seems they reduce oversupply. Now they pay the price.

    Ethanol can’t handle fair trade corn, (and is going out of production). Unless oil is skyrocketing!

    Balance, the NFU farm bill proposal study looked at the period of low prices (lowest ever, 1997-2005) and higher prices (up to 50% of record highs). NFFC bill is even better. (“Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill”)

    Feb. 2011 (NFU fr. USDA) corn farmers got 8¢ of $3.99 corn flakes, (and that doesn’t count “input share” to Monsanto/John-Deere, so it’s less than 3 cents).

  • Teiji

    This might sound extremely ignorant, but I was wondering if someone could elucidate exactly how the ethanol production process works. I see Dr. Nestle’s note which states that many corn producers own their own ethanol refineries…so do these corn producers sell their refined ethanol straight to oil companies (for the purpose of mixing with their pump-bound gas products)? I guess I’m interested in exploring the relationship between these two industries.

  • Waive the ethanol quota for the sake of poor people in poor countries.

  • DRock

    For the sake of lawnmower, motorcycle, and boat owners please get rid of the ethanol in the gasoline. Not only does it reduce power and economy in all engines it’s disastrous to small engines.

  • Corn is really good for making meat animals morbidly obese very quickly while skewing their n3:n6 ratios to the profoundly unhealthy end. And not much else.

    Corn is a really lousy feedstock for ethanol production, and ethanol is a lousy fuel compared to almost anything other than hydrogen. It is a example of how Political Correctness results in bad science, bad economic decisions, and very bad public policy.

  • JR

    The question misses the main points. Which are:

    1. Corn is a lousy source for ethanol (there’s at best a 5-10% energy gain in producing ethanol from corn, and Pimentel from Cornell would argue that there’s actually an energy deficit, i.e. we burn more petroleum energy converting corn to ethanol than the ethanol produces), and
    2. Corn is a lousy feed source for meat (at least beef and pork) production. gCorn-fed beef and pork is full of bad fats (omega 6s) and requires high doses of anti-biptics because corn is an unnatural feed for cows and pigs, and actually makes them sick.

    In debating whether or not we should be funneling more corn to ethanol or to meat, the best answer is “neither”. It’s much more efficient to make ethanol from sugar cane (as Brazil is demonstrating) and it’s much healthier to raise meat on pasture. Corn is the wrong choice all the way around…JR

  • Larry Karp

    Corn for ethanol tax subsidies should finally be stopped dead, as well as any other biofuels program based on using good farmland for such wasteful and inefficient purposes

  • People criticized corn when it was cheap, and ethanol. Now they criticize corn when cheap corn is fixed, and criticize ethanol as it is going broke!

    But really, you can’t have it both ways.

    This makes the food movement look bad, hypocritical, uninformed, like zealots. Come on folks, you can do better! I know you have it in you! Place it all in a proper context, and take a balanced position. For justice!

    See, missing is memory of cheap corn, historical knowledge. Missing is a standard for justice, for fair prices, fair trade, living wage prices. Missing is the concept of balance, what Henry Wallace called for in the farm bill, balance (and there were no subsidies).

    Missing are the needed policies: NFFC’s Food from Family Farms Act, which: 1. sets a standard; 2. prevents cheap corn, 3. gives consumers price ceilings and reserve supplies. Or NFU’s Market Driven Inventory System. And fixing the dairy crisis (SB 1640) These policies are Farm & Food Justice 202! We had a great farm bill (but not for ethanol) 1942-1952.

    Well, it’s just Friday afternoon. Keep pondering!

  • FarmerJane

    A starting point in answering this question might be to learn the history of corn policies in the US. We need to strike a balance. The balance involves food/ag/environmental/social, etc. considerations. A balance can only be struck when people have historical knowledge and the facts needed to create a balanced farm and food policy. This is incredibly lacking in popular media.

    Brad, I once saw a video that I think you did on You Tube. It was 1985 and I remember farm groups from the Mohawk Valley of Upstate NY raising money to send farmers to the event, thousands of farmers mobilized in Cedar Rapids for a talk show hosted by Phil Donahue. If you see this, will you post the video? It begins with “the cornflake man”. I would like Dr. Nestle’s readers to see some of the historical context of “corn” from the farmers view.

  • jill rowan

    Please subscribe me, thanks, jill

  • Brad Wilson

    You’re thinking of “Food Movement 1985: Were You There? We Were.” It’s a collection of farm justice comments. It’s probably a lot different kind of context, compared with what FarmerJane typically hears in food farm discussions. She and I were “there,” though apparently clear across the country from each other. Here it is: It has some great quotes from farm justice women, prophetic!

    In so much of industrial science we’ve had narrow studies and narrow solutions. Some call it the cookbook approach (is that fair?) In the new, (ie. sustainable) paradigms, it’s holistic, looking for the interconnections. And that’s true for placing corn in context. Cheap corn led to narrow industrial uses, with bad results, as the food films and books have shown. Unfortunately, however, the task of seeing corn in a holistic, sustainable context seems not to have been achieved, resulting in knee jerk bashing of anything “corn,” not just export dumping, but also fair trade prices, and without an understanding how higher prices (from farm justice policies, price floors & supply management,) help place corn in a Resource Conserving Crop Rotations, (ie. 4-5+ years, with alfalfa or clover and small grains, livestock,) eliminate the need for subsidies by making agribusiness pay, (subsidy limits and similar reforms don’t do this at all,) changes the research context, (as cheap raw materials prices no longer subsidize the bad research,) etc. This then changes wealth and jobs creation in rural communities. We see than that a variety of farm bill goals can be met across a variety of categories (ie. titles: commodity, conservation, nutrition, research, rural development, credit,) but just through farm justice policies, without increased spending. So as a strategy, it frees up money for other titles even as it better helps accomplish the goals of those titles.

    I don’t know, but maybe that’s what FarmerJane meant about balance, a holistic approach that reconciles a broad range of values. By the way, that’s a better definition of wealth (ie. value) creation than we find in the industrial model of “value added” (with the PR that keeps the “value subtracted” part hidden, (which is exactly what I saw, mostly, at the Iowa State Fair today). This point about reconciling values to create wealth comes from Charles Hampden-Turner, in either “Charting the Corporate Mind,” or “Creating Corporate Culture.” He emphasizes that dilemmas are generally involved in any “value added.”

    By the way, one 4-H kid had a project on pastured poultry. Ok, one did Pink Slime myths. It was all in the Bruce Rastetter 4-H building (he’s the Iowa CAFO corp. guy that’s landgrabbing in Africa.

  • Tawster

    Other solution: Ditch the millions of acres of corn. Grow craps that work with the land rather than against it. It will hurt during the adjustment, but… it’s sustainable.

  • Did you intend to sound like the very knee-jerk response I criticized?

    With fair trade corn prices that make grassfed meats much more competitive, and then in a rotation, less corn is grown. Perhaps you missed that. The hogs diet can be changed, for example, (Mark Honeyman, “Sustainable Swine Production in the U.S. Corn Belt,” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, (Vol. 6, No. 2, 1991),).

    Corn is one of the more sustainable row crops for providing plant residue to cover the land over the winter, and for roots that hold the soul. It takes a lot of nitrogen, but in a good rotation system, that can come from other rotation crops like alfalfa and clover (used by livestock as feed, instead of corn), and a rye grain cover crop can help hold on to the nitrogen, with help from better soil biotic life (see Rodale study comparing organic/chemical farming), and by avoiding GMOs you can avoid the way they seem to foster a leaching away of fertility. This then is more about seeing corn as part of a holistic system of science, technology, economics, ecology and community. And Cf. “The Culture of Corn Farming: Two Paradigms,”