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Prairies Vanishing in the US Amid Push for Corn Ethanol-Based Energy

December 16, 2014

Story at-a-glance

  • The US boasted nearly 92 million acres of corn crops in 2014 – the fifth largest corn acreage in the US since 1944 (and 93 percent of it is genetically modified)
  • Since the US government began requiring corn ethanol in fuel in 2007, more than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost to corn (and soy) crops
  • 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.
  • More than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands have been converted to corn from 2008 to 2011, which released at least 80 million tons of carbon a year
  • In 2014, economists estimate that $9.6 billion in taxpayer money could be paid out to corn, barley, soybean, rice, wheat, and sorghum producers due to government subsidies – double what was paid in 2013 and 53 percent more than the Congressional Budget Office predicted

By Dr. Mercola

The US boasted nearly 92 million acres of corn crops in 2014 – the fifth largest corn acreage in the US since 1944 (and 93 percent of it is genetically modified).1

For comparison, total acreage of lettuce planted in 2012 was 267,100 acres,2 broccoli was harvested from just 121,700 acres,3 and bell peppers were grown on about 55,500 acres.4

What could the US 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 US-grown corn).

The number one use for corn from 2010-2012 was actually not for food at all, but rather for fuel. The US green energy policy requires oil companies to blend corn ethanol into their gasoline, which has driven up corn prices (until this year). An absolutely tragic environmental blunder.

Corn crops are already subsidized by the US 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 an absolutely unnecessary surplus of corn, especially when natural prairies are being sacrificed.

Farmers Sacrifice Natural Prairies to Grown Corn for Ethanol

Since the US government began requiring its shortsighted, industry-influenced ethanol in fuel in 2007, more than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost to corn (and soy) crops. This includes:5

  • 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.

Monoculture also was largely responsible for creating the Dust Storm of the early 1900s, as wiping out the natural grasslands of the Plains to plant unprecedented amounts of wheat disrupted the entire ecosystem of the region, with disastrous consequences.

It seems we have learned little from our recent past, as today, soil is actually depleting 13% faster than it can be replaced, and we've lost 75% of the world's crop varieties in just the last 100 years.

Ethanol's 'Broken Promise'

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report titled "Ethanol's Broken Promise," which shows quite clearly that corn ethanol might be worse for the environment than gasoline.6

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has actually proposed cutting the amount of corn ethanol blended into gasoline in 2014 by 1.39 billion gallons, a move EWG says would lower US greenhouse gas emissions by 3 million tons of carbon monoxide, an amount equivalent to taking 580,000 cars off the road for one year. According to EWG:7

"It is now clear that the federal corn ethanol mandate has driven up food prices, strained agricultural markets, increased competition for arable land and promoted conversion of uncultivated land to grow crops. In addition, previous estimates have dramatically underestimated corn ethanol's greenhouse gas emissions by failing to account for changes in land use."

4 Myths the Ethanol Industry Wants You to Believe

Myth 1: Ethanol Doesn't Increase Corn Prices

Scientists from the National Academies revealed that using so much corn for ethanol increased the price of corn by 20 to 40 percent between 2007 and 2009 (which is partly why anti-hunger organizations are angry about corn ethanol).

Myth 2: Corn Increases Yields Infinitely

Corn cannot magically increase yields indefinitely, as Big Ethanol would like people to believe. In order to increase yields, farmers are plowing up native grasslands to make more room for corn. According to EWG, more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands have been converted to corn from 2008 to 2011, which released at least 80 million tons of carbon a year.

Myth 3: Corn Doesn't Need Water

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.

Myth 4: The Global Population Eats Too Much

More than 800 million people around the world don't have enough to eat, and when corn prices rise, it makes it difficult for even more people to feed their families. Nearly half of the corn grown in the US goes toward fuel, while people are starving around the world…

US Senator Dick Durbin Keeps Pushing Ethanol

US Senator Dick Durbin is a primary pusher of ethanol. In December 2013, he joined a group of Senators to protest the EPA's proposal to reduce the corn ethanol added to fuel.

He has also been actively working with members of Illinois' agricultural community and biofuels industry in attempts to promote "investments in the next generation biofuels and the infrastructure necessary to bring those fuels into the market."8

Senator Durbin went so far as to state that the EPA's proposed changes "seriously missed the mark," when in all actuality the changes are necessary to prevent further environmental destruction. The Renewable Fuel Standard, as it stands, requires oil companies to increase ethanol in gasoline from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. 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.

Corn Price Crash Predicted for 2014: Taxpayers Will Pay the Difference

The corn rush may have peaked, as it's predicted corn prices will drop by 20 percent by yearend.9 However, the 2014 farm bill included new subsidy programs to protect farmers from such drops. The past farm bill would pay out $5 billion a year to farmers, whether assistance was needed or not.

In 2014, agricultural economist Carl Zulauf from Ohio State University estimated that $9.6 billion could be paid out to corn, barley, soybean, rice, wheat, and sorghum producers – double what was paid in 2013 and 53 percent more than the Congressional Budget Office predicted.10 Ultimately, of course, it's taxpayers who foot the bill.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said of the predictions:

"I'm not shocked. The people who should have known better did know better and still we went forward with this. Any dip [in crop prices] is going to mean massive payouts. I hope this shakes people up and hopefully then we can go back in and fix it. This is a bad deal for the taxpayer."

What we have here is more taxpayer money subsidizing more Monsanto crops (Monsanto developed the GM corn that now dominates the market), which is only increasing now that so much corn is grown. To get an idea of the magnitude of how much money taxpayers are spending to grow corn, consider this from

"Since 1995, the government has spent $292.5 billion on agricultural subsidies, $19.2 billion of which have subsidized corn- and soy-hydrogenated oils. Taxpayers spent $84.4 billion on corn production, $8.1 billion of which funded production of corn starch and sweeteners."

Farmers File Lawsuits as China Rejects GM Corn

One of the reasons why corn prices have plummeted this year has to do with China's rejection of shipments containing traces of Syngenta's genetically modified MIR162 corn. MIR162 is approved for use in the US, but China has not allowed it to be imported into the country. Now farmers from five corn-growing states have filed three class-action lawsuits against Syngenta, seeking damages of more than $1 billion. According to the Institute of Science in Society:12

"Syngenta is blamed for destroying the export of US corn to China, which led to depressed prices for domestic corn, according to Volnek Farms, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in Omaha, Nebraska federal court. The two other suits were filed in Iowa and Illinois federal courts. None of the farmers involved in the lawsuits planted MIR162 seed in their fields in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. But their harvested crop was contaminated with traces of the transgenic trait, and hence unsalable to the Chinese market."

Of course, at the root of the problem is this: farmers wouldn't grow these Monsanto crops if they weren't subsidized, which would pave the way for truly sustainable methods of farming to flourish.

Return to Grasslands to Avoid Environmental Destruction (and Feed the World)

By plowing up grasslands to grow monocrops, we are contributing to environmental destruction and world hunger. One important factor that some experts believe is KEY for reversing environmental devastation is to return much of our land to grasslands and build a network of herbivore economics.

There is no better way to improve the conditions for animals, solve the carbon problem, bring more revenue to farmers, and improve our health by purchasing nutritious foods from properly pastured animals (versus the horrible CAFO model based on the monocultures of corn and soy fed to the animals).

By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals—meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns—farmers can support nature's efforts to regenerate and thrive. This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric CO2 by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good.

Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years, and adds to the soil's fertility. Returning to more sustainable organic farming methods is also necessary in order to support the regeneration of soils, which, ultimately, dictates how nutritious the food grown in it will be. As noted by anti-poverty activist Alnoor Ladha:13

"We have industrial agriculture that uses 75 percent of the world's resources and only yields 25 percent of the world's food, versus organic farming which provides 75 percent of the world's food while using only 25 percent of the world's resources."

In order to make food production sustainable, we have to join forces to keep genetically engineered 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.

What Can You Do?

Rebuilding functional ecosystems from the ground up WILL restore them to their fullest potential, and this needs to be our overriding focus. 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 GM foods 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 toxic chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides on your plate!
  • 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. A guide to help you can be found by clicking here. 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. First, you'll know where the foods you and your family eat come from, ensure optimal nutrition, and protect the health of future generations.

I recently named the GMA "the most evil corporation on the planet," considering the fact that it consists primarily of pesticide producers and junk food manufacturers who are going to great lengths to violate some of your most basic rights—just to ensure that subsidized, genetically engineered and chemical-dependent, highly processed junk food remains the status quo.

The insanity has gone far enough. It's time to unite and fight back, which is why I encourage you to boycott every single product owned by members of the GMA, including natural and organic brands. To learn more about this boycott, and the traitor brands that are included, please visit

I also encourage you to donate to the Organic Consumers Fund. Your donation will help fight the GMA lawsuit in Vermont, and also help win the GMO labeling ballot initiative in Oregon in November.

Voting with your pocketbook, at every meal, matters. It makes a huge difference. By boycotting GMA Member Traitor Brands, you can help level the playing field, and help take back control of our food supply. And as always, continue educating yourself about genetically engineered foods, and share what you've learned with family and friends.

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Sources and References

  • 1 USDA June 30, 2014
  • 2 AGMRC April 2012
  • 3 AGMRC April 2012
  • 4 AGMRC September 2014
  • 5 Fox News November 13, 2013
  • 6 Environmental Working Group May 29, 2014
  • 7 Environmental Working Group May 29, 2014
  • 8 September 9, 2014
  • 9 MarketWatch June 11, 2014
  • 10 Food and Ag Policy September 18, 2014
  • 11 July 16, 2013
  • 12 Institute of Science in Society October 13, 2014
  • 13 Common Dreams October 9, 2014
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