The Economics of Corn Production in the US

Introduction

Corn, the most widely cultivated crop for animal and human food in the US, is also one of the most important crops that are providing hope in finding alternative sources of energy. Statistics indicate that the crop occupies more than 80 million acres in the US every year, making it the largest crop produced in the country. In addition, the US is one of the largest providers of corn in the world market, with more than 20% of the world corn coming from the US. For instance, America produced more than 273,832,130 million tons of corn in 2012 alone while the world corn production stood at 690,668, 200 million tons.

In the recent past, research has led to an increased focus on using corn to produce ethanol, an important source of energy for industrial use. Nevertheless, the commercialization of corn in the US has become an important topic of debate among economists, naturalists and other scholars. In particular, the massive production of the crop in the US has had a negative impact on the soil, air, water and the ecosystem. In addition, the health impact of the crop on animals and humans remains unknown. In his book “omnivore’s dilemma”, American author Michael Pollan has shown that the commercialization of corn in the US is a major dilemma1.

On one hand, the crop offers the world with an important source of alternative source of energy as well as food for millions of people and animals across the globe. On the other hand, commercialized cultivation of the crop is an important sources of environmental and health degradation. The purpose of this paper is to develop an in-depth analysis of the dilemma, with special reference to Michael Pollan’s arguments in his book. In addition, the paper attempts to develop an in-depth review of the economics of corn production in the US.

Review of literature

Corn is the most cultivated crop in the US. The crop is simple to cultivate since it is a member of the grass family of genus “zea”. In addition, corn, also known as Maize in English, requires simple farming methods to cultivate. For instance, it requires adequate rain or water supply is affected by few pests and diseases and can be grown on one piece of land over a long time. Moreover, it has been shown that corn breeding is simple. According to Pollan, the crop has become a success story in human history because corn breeding is simple. According to this theory, breeding in corn involves transfer of pollen grains from the tassel of a plant to the silk-like ovaries of another plant or the same plant. This means that the only channel of transmission of pollen is wind. In addition, the presence of a large number of ovaries as well as the extension of the silk-like elements, combined with the presence of a huge number of pollen in a single plant, increases the chances of fertilization.

It has also been shown that the corn has a high rate of mutation, which has contributed to the increased growth rate, ability to adapt to various environments and the capacity to change from a small grass-like plant to a large crop with a high capacity to produce grains. Historical studies have shown that the crop was initially domesticated in Mexico. It was a small grass-like plant but with a high capacity to develop into larger crops when selected. Molecular studies reveal that successive mutation events led to the increase in the crop size in corn2.

Analysis of the issue

The benefits of corn to the American farmer

Apart from food production, corn has become an important source of ethanol for American industries. Since 1997, the amount of ethanol produced in American industries using corn plant has increased significantly. The use of ethanol in gasoline started in 1980s but mandated in 1990 under the Clean Air Act3. The enforcement of the law started in 1995, with an aim of addressing the quality of air. Since then, the amount of ethanol used in gasoline fuel has increased significantly. In particular, the development of technologies to produce large volumes of ethanol from crops has increased the volume of ethanol produced in the country. It is worth noting that most of the ethanol produced in American industries comes from corn plant.

The decreasing volume of world oil resources as well as increase in the world oil prices, combined with increase in the demand for oil has increased the need for ethanol and other biofuels in the American market. In addition, the demands for cleaner and renewable sources of energy have increased the demand for biofuels. In turn, the demand for corn has increased significantly. Thus, the market for corn farmers in the US market is not only large, but also expanding every year.

However, corn production requires energy in form of electricity and fuel. Corn farmers have always been relying on petroleum to drive machines needed for corn production. In addition, they have been relying on electricity for most of their production processes. Nevertheless, the increased demands for both types of energy as well as increased oil prices have reduced the profit margin for most corn farmers in the US. In response, technologies are increasingly emerging to develop better machines that consume biofuels instead of petroleum. The aim is to ensure that farmers develop their renewable sources of energy and increase the profit margins. It is estimated that American corn farmers can increase production by more than 20% and profitability by more than 30% if biofuels are used for driving machines in the farms.

What is corn farming and processing doing to the environment?

The environmental impact of corn production has become an important topic of debate. According to various studies, corn production in the US has resulted into a number of environmental concerns. First, the rise in demand for corn as a source of food and energy means that the crop must be produced throughout the year. In turn, huge tracts of land must come under corn production. Therefore, the amount of land needed for corn production has been increasing every year. To meet the increasing demand for corn in the American market, other crops must be reduced while increasing the amount of corn plants in every farm.

In particular, it is worth noting that corn has no capacity to fix nitrogen in the soil, yet it requires high sources of nitrogen for its growth and development. Since the high demand for the crop in the market requires farmers to reduce the number of other crops, including leguminous plants, from the farms and produce corn throughout the year, it is worth noting that the amount of nitrogen in the soil has been decreasing4. Thus, farmers must ensure that chemicals are applied to provide corn with nitrogen. This means that the farmers are accumulating chemicals in their soils, which affects soil quality.

Secondly, the amount of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals needed to boost corn production in the US has risen due to the rising demand for the crop in the industrial and food sector. In turn, the quality of soil has been decreasing every year due to excessive application of these chemicals. For instance, studies have shown that continuous use of chemical fertilizers as well as other chemicals has an impact on soil pH. According to these studies, soil pH in the Corn Belt has changed from the natural 6.5-7.0 to about 5.0 and below5. This means that most farms have increased their soil acidity due to an increase in the rate of chemical use.

In addition, it has been shown that the organic matter in the soil has been changing significantly. For instance, it has been shown that most of the farms in the Corn Belt have reduced the soil organic matter because the rising demand for corn requires farmers to reduce the number of other crops in their lands. In addition, the demand requires farmers to sell most parts of the crop, reducing the volume of plant parts that can be returned into the soil to boost the amount of organic matter in the soil.

Studies have attempted to describe the environmental impact of commercialized corn production, especially in terms of water and the ecosystem. It has been shown that increased need for the crop has raised the demand for water for irrigation. In fact, farmers do not relay on rainwater in corn farming. The amount of water needed to produce corn throughout the year is quite high. Thus, American farmers have increased their use of natural sources of water to boost crop production. In turn, the amount of water in the natural sources such as rivers and streams has reduced. The long-term effect is a decrease in the natural water sources, which interferes with the ecosystem because other plants and animals are likely to reduce. Moreover, it is worth noting that farms dispose water after irrigating their farms.

It has been shown that water leaving corn farms has a significant amount of farm chemicals. The disposition of these chemicals in the natural drainage system is likely to interfere with water quality, which is a potential hazard to animals, plants and humans. In fact, most naturalists argue that the quality of sea and lake water is under threat due to the inflow of chemicals from farms. Thus, commercialization of corn production is likely to increase this phenomenon, yet the demand for corn requires farmers to use more water and chemicals in their farms. Thus, the increased demand for corn production has a negative effect on soil water, which in turn decreases productivity. It is evident that these practices will have a long-term impact on the soil quality, which may reduce productivity and fail to meet the demand for the crop in future.

The impact of corn on meat and animal production

Michael Pollan’s book provides one of the best analyses of the impacts of commercialization of corn production in the US. In particular, the author attempts to show the negative impacts of the crop on health and environment. The book begins with an analysis of the food chain in the US. According to the author, naturalists consider biodiversity as a measure of the health of a landscape, which implies that the variety of crops on a given landscape should represent an ecological vigor.

In reference to human health, it has Michael Pollan argues that almost every form of food available in the US market has some corn or corn derivatives, which is likely to have a negative impact on human health. He reports “…an average supermarket in the US has about 45,000 items and more than 25% of them have corn…”6

For instance, corn is being fed to fatten animals and fish, increase milk and egg production and enhance growth rates. Pollan argues that corn exists in milk, eggs, meat and fish, which make the most important part of American diet. Moreover, the author reveals that industrial scientists in the US have developed techniques to turn corn into cornucopia, an important derivative for a number of products such as beer, soda, cheez and other items. This further implies that the corn derivatives are found in almost any other form of food and drinks.

What is the health impact of the product on humans?

Carbon is the second most common element in human bodies. Researches and authors such as Michael Pollan have shown that animals, including humans, obtain carbon from the air and food. In the ecosystem, plants obtain carbon atoms from the air during the process of photosynthesis7. Animals and humans eat plants, thereby integrating the carbon atoms from the plants. In addition, humans eat animals, thus integrating carbon from both plants and animals.

According to scientific studies, most plants snatch three carbon atoms from the air and integrate them into their bodies, which are then transferred to animal and human bodies after consuming food crops. However, corn is different from other plants. Studies have shown that corn snatches four instead of three carbon atoms from the air. In addition, it has been shown that plants that integrate 4 carbon atoms prefer carbon 13, a heavy isotope of carbon. Corn is one of the most common crops that take in this isotope from the air and integrate it into its body. This means that massive cultivation of corn leads to an increased uptake of carbon 13 from the air.

In addition, it leads to excessive presence of carbon 13 in the foods available for animal and human consumption. Eventually, humans increase the amount of carbon 13 isotope in their bodies. It has been shown people who eat a lot of corn or its products have a major imbalance between carbon 13 and carbon 12 in their bodies.

According to these authors, it is clear that the increased use of corn to fatten animals is a potential threat to the quality of meat in the American market. Authors have argued that the rate of fattening animals using corn increase the amount of carbon 13 in animal fats. In addition, corn has the potential to increase the amount of fats in meat and reduce other elements. According to studies, animal fats have a significant impact on human health.

For instance, it has been shown that the increase in the amount of unsaturated fatty acids in the diet is a potential cause of a number of diseases and conditions. First, studies have shown that the increasing prevalence of obesity in the US should be partly blamed on the type of food eaten, especially animals products that have high amounts of fat. Michael Pollan says “…three out of five people in the US are overweight and one of five individuals is obese”.8 It has also been shown that fatty acids and glycerol in diet are a potential cause of the increasing prevalence of diabetes and cardiac problems. For instance, the prevalence of diseases such as thrombosis and cardiac arrests has increased significantly over the last three decades.

What is the possible solution?

Since the negative impacts of commercialized corn production is evident, it is important to find better methods for cultivation and meeting the demand for biofuels and food. For instance, other crops such as wheat are alternative sources of energy and food. It is possible to reduce the amount of land under corn and increase wheat production. In addition, it is important to alternate between wheat and corn in some farms in order to reduce the effect of overgrowing one type of crop9.

Conclusion

This paper attempts to determine the economic impact of corn growing to the American farmers, human health, the environment and the economy in general. Although the crop is cultivated as an animal feed, millions of corn grains are used for human consumption, making it one of the most important food crops in the US. In terms of human health, Biomedical studies have shown that the increased amount of fats and sugars in the diet have to blame for the problem. Additional studies reveal that the increased amount of fats in the diet results from practices that seek to increase the rate of animal growth and accumulation of fats. In fact, it has been shown that milk, apart from meat, have a high amounts of fats due to increased tendency to fatten animals using corn and corn derivatives.

Environmentally, corn production uses extensive land meant for other crops and reduces the amount of natural plants and animals, thus interfering with the ecosystem. In addition, corn production requires extensive water for irrigation, which affects the availability of water for animals, plants and human use. The research also finds that the excessive use of fertilizers and chemicals pollutes soil and water and affects the productivity of land.

On the other hand, commercialization of corn production for biofuels increases the amount of income for American farmers. It also reduces reliance on oil and electricity, giving the farmers some opportunities for developing self-renewable energy sources.

Bibliography

Duvick, Daniel & Cassman, K. G. (2009). “Post-green-revolution trends in yield potential of temperate maize in the north-central United States”. Crop Science 39 (6): 1622–1630. Web.

Fewell, Jason Edward. Essays on Kansas farmers’ willingness to adopt alternative energy crops and conservation practices. Mason, OH: Cengage, 2012. Web.

Field, Barry C. Natural resource economics: an introduction. New York: Waveland Press, 2008. Web.

Larson, J. A., B. C. English, DG De La Torre Ugarte, R. J. Menard, C. M. Hellwinckel, and Tristram O. West. “Economic and environmental impacts of the corn grain ethanol industry on the United States agricultural sector.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 65, no. 5 (2010): 267-279. Web.

Mehaffey, Megan, Elizabeth Smith, and Rick Van Remortel. “Midwest US landscape change to 2020 driven by biofuel mandates.” Ecological Applications 22, no. 1 (2012): 8-19. Web.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World. New York, Bloomsbury publishing Plc, 2010. Web.

Footnotes

1 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World (New York, Bloomsbury publishing Plc, 2010), 36. Web.

2 Daniel Duvick, & Cassman, K. G. (2009). “Post-green-revolution trends in yield potential of temperate maize in the north-central United States”. Crop Science 39 (6): 1622–1630. Web.

3 Barry C Field, Natural resource economics: an introduction (New York: Waveland Press, 2008), 139. Web.

4 Larson, J. A., B. C. English, DG De La Torre Ugarte, R. J. Menard, C. M. Hellwinckel, and Tristram O. West. “Economic and environmental impacts of the corn grain ethanol industry on the United States agricultural sector.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 65, no. 5 (2010): 267-279. Web.

5 Megan Mehaffey, Elizabeth Smith, and Rick Van Remortel. “Midwest US landscape change to 2020 driven by biofuel mandates.” Ecological Applications 22, no. 1 (2012): 9. Web.

6 Polla, 14.

7 Pollan, 231.

8 Pollan, 54.

9Jason Edward Fewell, Essays on Kansas farmers’ willingness to adopt alternative energy crops and conservation practices (Mason, OH: Cengage, 2012), p. 46. Web.