We just can't quit you, corn.
ShutterstockWe just can’t quit you, corn.

We at Grist go on and on about corn — how it’s far too dominant in the U.S. agricultural landscape, how it uses too much land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and taxpayer dollars, and how it produces too little food. It’s a familiar refrain around here.

Last week, University of Minnesota agricultural scientist Jonathan Foley, author of peer-reviewed research into the global impacts of agriculture, took to the pages of Scientific American to declare that corn is far too dominant in the U.S. agricultural landscape, that it uses too much land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and taxpayer dollars, and that it produces too little food. Foley goes so far as to use the language of the financial crisis to state plainly that:

The monolithic nature of corn production presents a systemic risk to America’s agriculture, with impacts ranging from food prices to feed prices and energy prices. It also presents a potential threat to our economy and to the taxpayers who end up footing the bill when things go sour. This isn’t rocket science: You wouldn’t invest in a mutual fund that was dominated by only one company, because it would be intolerably risky. But that’s what we’re doing with American agriculture. Simply put, too many of our agricultural eggs are in one basket. [emphasis added]

He sums up the argument against our over-reliance on corn elegantly.

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported. Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

When you calculate our corn production based on calories produced per acre — and account for the fact that a third of U.S. corn goes to livestock, which are actually not very efficient at converting it to meat — it turns out corn feeds a mere three people per acre. That, Foley points out, “is lower than the average delivery of food calories from farms in Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam.”