A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a memorable piece on its front business page about corn overproduction in Iowa. Entitled “Mountains of Corn and a Sea of Farm Subsidies,” the piece featured a photo of a monstrous pile of corn outside of a stuffed-to-capacity grain elevator, “soaring more than 60 feet high and spreading a football field wide,” the text informs us.
(Shame on me for not writing about this at the time; the piece has since gone premium.)
One ingenious entrepreneur has even rushed out with “Ski Iowa” t-shirts, the article reports — a funny echo of the “Ski Iraq” t-shirt that transfixed the character Billy on Six Feet Under in its final season.
Seems that farmers once again produced way too much corn in 2005, cranking it out faster than the likes of Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill can transform it into industrial-food filler, high-fructose corn sweetener, and ethanol. Say what you want about it, but input-heavy, energy-intensive, subsidy-dependent agriculture has certainly proven it can crank out a whole bunch of grain.
I got to thinking about that mountain of unwanted corn when I read another page-one story from the Times’ business page, this one on growing corporate/investor interest in “green” technology. The piece opens thusly:
A few years ago, scientists at Cargill Inc. learned how to make rigid, transparent plastics from corn sugars. There was just one problem: they cost a lot more than the oil-based plastics they would replace.
But that was before the price of oil shot up and companies came under pressure from consumers and investors to find economically sound ways to adopt “green” packaging and other environmentally friendly products and processes. This year, Wal-Mart, Wild Oats Market and many other retailers, as well as food suppliers like Del Monte and Newman’s Own Organics, all embraced corn-based packaging for fresh produce.
At first glance, a problem-solution scenario presents itself. Midwest farmers need new markets for their corn; companies of all stripes need packaging for their goods. Cargill steps in, buys corn, turns it into plastic, and everyone’s happy. Cargill’s corn-plastic arm saw sales surge 200 percent in first-half 2005.
Isn’t this the Al Gore vision come true? The market, goosed by multibillion-dollar subsidies that encourage corn overproduction, is quietly prodding companies to replace fossil fuel with “renewable” energy.
Yet I wonder how much fossil fuel is actually being saved in this bargain.
According to this 2002 study by Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins:
The average U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy in producing 1 kcal of food energy (in feedlot beef production, this ratio is 35:1), and this does not include the energy used to process and transport the food. [Emphasis not in original.]
Thus, even before the process of transforming corn into plastic, tremendous outlays of fossil fuel go up in smoke. And corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, meaning it requires more petrochemical-laden fertilizers than the average crop.
Note, too, that 45 percent of field corn planted in the U.S. in 2004 was genetically modified. Corn is a promiscuous pollinator, meaning that GM corn strains can and do cross-pollinate with and infect non-GM strains. A green community that throws its lot with GM corn is promoting corporate-driven monoculture.
In the end, I think corn-based plastic, like ethanol, is a sinkhole, drawing government support (in the form of corn subsidies) in an effort that looks green but is actually another form of corporate welfare.
Remember: That government-underwritten mountain of corn in Iowa means Cargill gets to buy its input commodity at a cut rate.