22. What Should US Corn Cropland Do?

A chart I found on the internet showed US “Corn Usage by Segment” for 2015.  If I’m reading it right, only 30.3% of US corn for that year because fuel ethanol;  12.5% was exported (some of this for animal feed);  3.5% became high fructose corn syrup and another 2.2% became other “sweeteners;”  1.5% was listed as “cereal/ other” i.e. corn eaten by people as corn;  and a whopping 47.1% (plus some of the exports) was fed to livestock.

This is not how to feed the world.

I discussed the problem of corn ethanol in my last post.  There is a great deal of data these days to indicate that sugar of any kind is neither healthful nor nutritious.  And while I addressed the concerns with using human-edible crops for animal feed in posts 6 and 7, a few of these points bear a quick revisit.

For one thing — and most to the point when discussing world hunger — livestock is incredibly inefficient in turning feed into food.  After all, some of what any animal eats is simply excreted (a dairy cow that produces 11 gallons of milk per day, for example, also produces some 80 pounds of manure).  Some food is burned for energy;  some becomes fur, feathers,  bones,  teeth/beaks, hoofs, hide, and discarded internal organs.  Crickets,  chickens, and fish turn a full 25% of what they’re fed into food humans can eat, but they are the most efficient.  For pigs, sheep, and cows it takes about 8 to 20 pounds of feed for the animal to produce one pound of food for people.  From the perspective of ending hunger, feeding animals many pounds of grain and soybeans to produce each pound of human food instead of feeding all those many pounds of grains and beans directly to the hungry is simply not excusable.

If that is not enough, there are other problems with the Confined Animal Feeding Operations/CAFOs, i.e., factory farms that use all that feed.  When animals are treated as production units and crowded by the thousands into buildings, they are so stressed and miserable that they are prone to mass die-offs from disease, so continual antibiotics are needed to keep them alive (and putting on weight as fast as possible) — creating antibiotic-resistant disease organisms.  In such conditions the amount of manure they produce can equal that of a small city per CAFO, but inadequate regulation leads chronically to water and air pollution.  That many animals drink vast quantities of water, which removes water from streams and groundwater and can cause environmental damage and shortages of water for other uses (like drinking, bathing, laundry, and irrigating crops for human consumption).  And the industrial-agriculture model that produces the feed has serious environmental problems (as noted in post 19).

Beyond question, factory farms based on subsidies for growing the feed are the pre-eminent way to produce lots of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy.  And cheap animal foods are in high demand.  But producing cheap animal foods in this way directly and seriously impedes ending hunger.

So what should US corn cropland be doing?  How about growing corn and other grains and beans and vegetables for people to eat?

There are two interlocking keys to transforming the current situation into this better one.  One is for people to switch their dietary expectations from high to low consumption of animal foods.  (Vegans and low-dairy vegetarians  are exemplary, but moving to plant-based diets which just use small amounts of animal food would do for most.)  A serious drop in demand for animal foods would leave room for sustainable and appropriate pasturing of livestock but could eliminate CAFOs.  The other key is to adjust farm policies and subsidies so that farmers who now grow commodity corn for feed and ethanol could instead make a living growing corn for eating as corn, while adding the growing of other grains and vegetables that people would eat.  Farmers basically want to make a living growing food.  If government policies provide different ways of doing this — as long as the making-a-living thing is guaranteed — it should not be unacceptable, even if it does mean making some changes.

This brings us to the realm of national politics and policies.  The first step in working towards policies that are better at ending hunger than what we’re doing now is to start the discussion of their necessity.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


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