By Dr. Mercola
The Iowa caucuses will be held in February 2016, which is sure to bring corn to the forefront of the presidential campaigns. Iowa is the leading producer of both corn and ethanol and, as The New York Times, pointed out:1
"Modern tradition holds that you can't win Iowa (first in the nation!) without selling your soul on ethanol."
Surveys suggest the majority of Iowa caucus goers support The Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires oil companies to increase ethanol in gasoline from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022.
This includes 77 percent of Democratic caucus goers and 61 percent of Republicans, according to The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll.2
Support for the mandate continues even as it becomes clear the amount of corn required to meet this mandate, and the natural habitats that will be further lost to support it, will devastate the environment. Still, as NPR put it, there are signs that "ethanol is not the campaign force it once was."3
Monsanto's Corn Is Devastating U.S. Prairies
Nearly 90 million acres of corn crops were planted in the U.S. in 2015.4 What could the U.S. possibly do with that much corn? It's far too much for making corn on the cob and popcorn, and even for feeding livestock (although the latter is still a major use for U.S.-grown corn).
The No. 1 use for corn from 2010 to 2012 was actually not for food at all, but rather for fuel. The U.S. "green energy" policy requires oil companies to blend corn ethanol into their gasoline.
Corn crops are already subsidized by the U.S. government, so between subsidies and rising ethanol-driven prices, corn has become quite a cash crop for farmers.
But this "green energy" program is backfiring because there's nothing 'green' about planting a mega-surplus of corn, especially when natural prairies are now being sacrificed to do it.
U.S. prairies are being wiped out so fast to plant neat rows of corn and soybeans that some ecologists say they're now among the most threatened ecosystems on Earth — even more so than tropical rain forests. In Minnesota, for instance, only 1 percent of the original prairie remains untouched.5
Farmers have much incentive to plow up their grassy fields in favor of genetically engineered corn, and little incentive to preserve it as is. As reported by the Star Tribune:6
" … [N]ew varieties of genetically modified corn and soybeans have allowed farmers to push the Corn Belt westward, planting row crops on land once better suited to grazing cattle.
Today, that tough prairie sod doesn't have to be plowed, just planted. The new corn and soybean seeds are immune to Roundup; farmers can kill the native grasses with the herbicide, then plant right over them.
… The natural events — heavy spring rains and bone-dry summers — that are a part of life in the Dakotas might have made farmers more cautious, despite the new seed varieties.
But today federally subsidized crop insurance often means they get a payoff even when nature doesn't cooperate … Livestock operators just can't compete against the combined forces of crop insurance and high commodity prices.
Around Highmore [South Dakota], they estimate they can make $50 to $100 an acre by grazing cattle; corn is fetching $300 or more per acre [in 2012] … regardless of how good the yields are."
How a Landscape of Corn Is Ruining the Environment
Since the U.S, government began requiring ethanol in fuel in 2007, more than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost to corn (and soy) crops. This includes:7
- At least 830,000 acres of grassland in Nebraska
- More than 370,000 acres of grassland in South Dakota
The ethanol fuel program was designed to reduce global warming but, ironically, the loss of grasslands is poised to do just the opposite.
Plowing up native grasslands to plant vast expanses of corn and soy — the epitome of monoculture — releases carbon dioxide into the environment while increasing erosion and the use of toxic fertilizers and other chemicals. It also destroys habitat for native plants and wildlife. The Star Tribune noted:8
"Perhaps least appreciated … is the role grasslands play in storing carbon, which, when released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, is a major contributor to global warming.
Their vast underground root systems, which can reach depths of eight or nine feet, hold an astonishing one-third of the world's carbon stocks. That's almost as much as the amount stored by forests, according to the World Resources Institute …
On average, every time an acre of grassland is plowed, it releases 60 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — about the amount emitted annually by 30 passenger cars.
Preserving grasslands as a hedge against climate change makes sense, even after considering the environmental benefits of ethanol, said Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota professor who studies grasses and biofuels.
It will take a century before the carbon saved by burning corn ethanol equals the amount unleashed by plowing up the grassland used to produce it in the first place, he said."
There are other issues, too, like fewer birds and other wildlife and soil blowing away in the wind (it's like the Dust Storm of the early 1900s all over again). There's flooding to deal with, too, caused by heavy rains pouring off the crop fields.
The water picks up fertilizers and pesticides and then runs off into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and ultimately on to the Gulf of Mexico, where a massive "dead zone" has now emerged.
Not to mention that the neonicotinoid insecticides used to coat genetically engineered corn seeds may affect the developing human nervous system, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
As a result, EFSA called for guidance levels of acceptable exposure to be lowered while further research is carried out.9
How the Overplanting of Corn Is Harming Marine Life
Marine dead zones (when oxygen concentrations fall below the level necessary to sustain most animal life) are one common consequence of modern-day industrial agriculture.
As fertilizer runs off farms in major farming states (like Minnesota and Iowa), it enters the Mississippi River, leading to an overabundance of nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, in the water.
This, in turn, leads to the development of algal blooms, which alter the food chain and deplete oxygen, leading to dead zones. One of the largest dead zones worldwide can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, beginning at the Mississippi River delta.10
Fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico have been destroyed as a result. Residents of Toledo, Ohio, are also being affected by a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie, caused by fertilizer run-off from corn and soybean farms. The blooms produce a toxin called microcystin, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and even liver damage, so residents, who depend on the lake for their tap water, have had to rely on bottled water.11 Mother Jones reported:12
"Toledo's fertilizer-haunted water supply is hardlyan isolated case. Similar situations persist throughout the Corn Belt, from Ohio in the east to Nebraska in the west.
To grow the great bulk of corn and soybeans that fuel our food system, the Corn Belt uses massive amounts of fertilizer — and it doesn't stay put.
For example, Iowa's Department of Natural Resources has had to issue 131 advisories since 2006 … warning people to keep themselves and their pets out of lakes made toxic by these phosphorus-fed blooms. Ohio has eight such warnings active [as of mid-2015], apart from the drama in Toledo."
The problem has gotten so bad that the Des Moines water utility sued three farming districts in order to get their runoff regulated under the Clean Water Act. Run-off from most agricultural operations is currently exempt from the standards. The case is expected to reach federal court this year.13
Corn Ethanol Is Draining Midwestern Aquifers
Estimates showing corn ethanol's positive influence on the environment failed to take into account the water needed to grow the corn. According to agricultural economists from Purdue University, when corn plants' water need is taken into account, corn ethanol is worse for the environment than gasoline.14
Corn ethanol production facilities also require large amounts of water, which is sourced from underground aquifers. The Lincolnway Energy Plant in Nevada, Iowa, for instance, uses 200 million gallons of water per year to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol (sourced from 100,000 acres of corn).
The state's water supply is becoming threatened as a result of ethanol production. At the Jordan aquifer, state geologists warned in 2009 that it was being pumped at an unsustainable rate.15
Professor Jerald Schnoor, who headed the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council in 2007, told Scientific American, "People don't realize that we're unsustainably pumping down these aquifers," he said, calling for an end to the expansion of biofuel use for this reason." 16
At this point, it's quite clear that plowing up native grasslands to plant vast expanses of corn and soy needs to be stopped – not further subsidized by the government. Not to mention, ethanol has been found to be worse for engines,17 worse for mileage,18 and more about political agendas than economic or environmental ones. As Ron Paul said:19
"Today, the government decides and they misdirect the investment to their friends in the corn industry or the food industry. Think how many taxpayer dollars have been spent on corn [for ethanol], and there's nobody now really defending that as an efficient way to create diesel fuel or ethanol. The money is spent for political reasons and not for economic reasons. It's the worst way in the world to try to develop an alternative fuel."
As further reported by Clean Technica, corn ethanol fuel standards have created more problems than solutions:20
"A ten-year review of the US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) by researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT) found that the RFS is "too reliant" on corn ethanol, and the production of this biofuel is resulting in additional water and soil problems, as well as "hampering advancements" in other biofuels."
Monsanto's GM crops are often touted as necessary to ensure global food security, even though studies show reduced crop yields with their use. Feed the world? More like starve the world to protect Monsanto's fuel subsidy …
Rebuilding the Environment Involves Restoring Grasslands for Grazing Cattle
To make food production sustainable, we have to join forces to keep genetically engineered (GE) monoculture and pesticide-resistant or pesticide-producing crops at bay. This is surely not an easy task in light of the financial (and hence political) clout wielded by the chemical technology industry. And yet we must embrace that challenge.
The good news is that we don't need to invent yet another chemical or a new piece of farm equipment to solve this problem. We simply need to revert back to a system that works with nature rather than against it. And this involves grazing cattle. My previous article discussing the work of ecologist Allan Savory goes into this process in greater detail.
Perhaps you can't do anything about how large-scale commercial farms are being run at the moment, but you can make a difference for yourself, for your family and community that might have residual effects. Buying organic, thereby avoiding any and all GE foods (including GE corn and corn products, like high-fructose corn syrup) is, I believe, a crucial step.
This includes buying grass-fed or pastured animal products such as beef, chicken, milk and eggs. Besides that, you can also:
- Grow your own organic vegetables. Organic gardening isn't something extra you do — in fact it's quite the opposite. It's what you don't do that makes the difference: no chemicals, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on your plate! When you take control of what you eat, you'll naturally enjoy better health, ensuring and protecting future generations.
- Composting is another way to make what you already have work for you in the future. Save those scraps, from egg shells to coffee filters, and use them to feed your vegetable garden.
When shopping for food, be informed regarding where that food was produced. If you take advantage of the farm-fresh sustainability that's becoming more prevalent as people take control of what they're consuming, you'll realize many benefits. You'll know where the foods you and your family eat come from, ensure optimal nutrition, and protect the health of future generations.