The Silver Lining in the Drought
By WILLIAM G. MOSELEY
We have become dangerously focused on corn in the Midwest (and soybeans, with which it is cultivated in rotation). This limited diversity of crops restricts our diets, degrades our soils and increases our vulnerability to droughts. Farmers in the central plains used to grow a greater diversity of food and forage crops, including oats, hay, alfalfa and sorghum. But they gradually opted to grow more and more corn thanks to federal agricultural subsidies and expanding markets for corn in animal feed, corn syrup and ethanol.
The virtue of corn is that it is one of the most productive crops on the planet, a characteristic that has been greatly amplified by years of research and development. Over time, this cheap and plentiful commodity found more uses and worked its way into more countries.
Cheap corn enabled the proliferation of high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that is almost impossible to avoid in the American diet today. Farmers also produced less fodder for their own animals as they increasingly purchased relatively inexpensive corn-based feeds. When the cheap price of corn alone could not open up new opportunities, government policies and quotas encouraged the development of corn-based ethanol production and markets, to the point where 40 percent of the corn crop is now devoted to this use.
America’s corn surpluses also drove global market prices so low that many countries found it cheaper to import grain rather than grow their own.
Corn’s weakness is that it is highly susceptible to drought. As an open pollinator, corn has a critical seven-day window (which varies across the Corn Belt depending on planting time) when it really needs sufficient rainfall in order to successfully cross-fertilize with other corn plants. Given this summer’s drought, the worst since the 1950s, it is not surprising that the corn crop has taken a beating. Most estimates suggest that only about a quarter of the crop is in good condition.
The problem is not so much the drought but our over-reliance on this single crop. As droughts are predicted to become more frequent with global climate change, we must rethink our increasingly vulnerable agri-food system. As such, the failing corn crop may not be such a bad thing if it prompts a push for change.
The No. 1 culprit behind our overreliance on corn is the federal farm subsidy program. While subsidies are not categorically bad, they become a problem if they leave farmers with little choice but to focus on a few crops. The proposed farm bill now before Congress would make some progress by ending direct payments to farmers for certain commodities (most notably corn) in favor of expanded crop insurance. Even with that critical change, a floor price (below which farmers receive payments from the government) and a more robust crop insurance program for certain commodities will still mean that farmers narrowly concentrate on corn and soybeans in the Midwest.
While this system clearly favors those interests that benefit from an oversupply of cheap corn (fertilizer and pesticide providers, feedlots and food and ethanol producers), it is not good for taxpayers, our food system or the environment.
The better approach would be to offer somewhat lower floor-price supports to a much broader range of crops and to incentivize mixed crop and livestock farms by offering direct payments linked to fodder production that is used on the farm. We also need a crop insurance program that is sensitive to climate change. Insurance should be for the occasional hazard, not one that is occurring with increasing regularity. For example, as Minnesota’s climate becomes more like that of Kansas (as some climate change models predict), insurance schemes should encourage more drought-tolerant planting strategies.
The relentless promotion of corn-based ethanol through state quotas and federal subsidies must also be relaxed. The fact that the energy content of a gallon of corn-based ethanol is only slightly more than the energy required to produce it has always made the environmental argument for these programs dubious. Using switch grass or sugar cane to produce ethanol makes more environmental sense and would reduce the inevitable tension between energy and food needs for corn.
Internationally, we need a rebalancing of the food system from a few megaproducers and lots of importers to a more decentralized mix. Most countries face a problem of double exposure: volatility in global food markets and meteorological variability affecting domestic production. Good risk management means encouraging both domestic production and trade to manage exposure to inevitable variation.
Such changes needn’t be bad for America’s agricultural economy and our farmers. We might produce less corn, and perhaps not experience the same booms when production is strong and prices are high, but we would also not encounter the same devastating lows when drought strikes or prices collapse. A more diverse cropping landscape would mean viable farms, healthier diets and a steadier food system.
William G. Moseley, a professor of geography at Macalester College, is the author of the forthcoming book “An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes.”