High Cost of Corn and Saving Prairies

saving prairies

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers tackled the monumental task of figuring out which U.S. counties produced the most corn as well as where that corn ended up downstream, right down to the various supply chains and industries
  • The two major users of corn in the U.S. are concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and ethanol
  • Grasslands have been plowed up to plant a surplus of corn for ethanol, but when the environmental repercussions are factored in, including the environmental costs of growing corn, ethanol may be worse for the Earth than gasoline

By Dr. Mercola

Take a drive through the U.S. Midwest and you can’t miss the seemingly endless fields of corn. Depending on the season, the corn may be tall and green or dry and brown, or already combined, leaving vast swatches of barren soil exposed. None of the scenarios would appear particularly noteworthy to the average passerby, and certainly not cause for alarm.

However, if you dig a bit deeper into the reality of not just the U.S. Corn Belt, but also the massive amounts of corn being grown around the globe, a darker picture begins to emerge. Gone are the days of small-town farmers growing just enough corn to feed locals and, perhaps, their livestock over the winter.

In the 21st century, the two major consumers of corn are industrial in nature: concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and ethanol. There’s now so much corn grown in the U.S. that the Corn Belt (typically said to include corn grown across Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and parts of Nebraska and Kansas) can be seen from space, courtesy of satellite chlorophyll-sensors.1

There’s a tendency to think of corn as natural and even all-American, but as its true environmental costs become clear — growing corn is not only chemical-intensive but also requires significant amounts of water and land, leading to air pollution, water scarcity and more — accountability is becoming more important.

Where in the Supply Chain Is Corn Causing the Most Environmental Harm?

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tackled the monumental task of figuring out which U.S. counties produced the most corn as well as where that corn ended up downstream, right down to the various supply chains and industries.2 “Think of the new research as a computer model of the United States of Corn,” Bloomberg reported, continuing:3

“The general problem that the researchers took on — prompted by a collaboration with the nongovernmental organization the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) — is that some 75 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions and water use of economic production is bound up in an enormous, poorly documented network of supply chains.

Given the importance of corn to both the meat and ethanol industries, and the importance of the meat and ethanol industries to American consumers, they focused on that specific network.”

Kansas City, Missouri-based beef processor National Beef fared the worst in terms of irrigated water usage, coming in at 11.7 cubic meters per bushel of corn in their supply chain. Minnesota-based Cargill, for comparison, used 5.7 cubic meters to Virginia-based Smithfield’s 1.3. Flint Hills Resources, the fifth largest ethanol producer in the U.S., headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, used 1.4 cubic meters of irrigated water per bushel while South Dakota-based biofuel company POET came in at 0.2.

As for greenhouse gas emitted per bushel of corn in each company’s supply chain, Cargill came in at 11.6 CO2-equivalent, kg, the highest of the group, followed by POET at 10.7, National Beef at 10.4 and Smithfield Foods at 10.2.4 As Bloomberg noted, the hope is that by exposing this information it will drive (or force) companies to adopt more sustainable models:5

“With localized information about where corn comes from, and where it ends up being eaten by cattle, swine, or fowl, or cooked into auto fuel, companies can better understand where in their supply chains the most carbon is burned, the most water is used, and where the landscape is most transformed.”

Industrial Agriculture Rivals Deforestation in Environmental Destruction

Carbon erosion from the land and into the water and air is creating a very unstable environment. While removal of forests that cannot only sustain but also regenerate our soils and solidify this fragile carbon balance is a major part of the problem, so too, is industrial agriculture, including the removal of grasslands to plant more corn.

Previous estimates suggest that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor land management processes that contribute to the loss of carbon, as carbon dioxide, from farmlands.6

A recent study also revealed “hotspots of soil carbon loss, often associated with major cropping regions and degraded grazing lands” in the U.S. and suggested that such regions should be “targets for soil carbon restoration efforts.”7 Specifically, while deforestation is said to have resulted in 127 billion tons of carbon lost from the soil, the study found industrial agriculture has led to losses of 121 billion tons.

Soil scientist and study author Jonathan Sanderman, with the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “It’s alarming how much carbon has been lost from the soil. Small changes to the amount of carbon in the soil can have really big consequences for how much carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere.”8

Regenerative agriculture, including converting cornfields back to grasslands and saving natural grasslands that exist, is key to fixing the problem. This type of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (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 actually adds to the soil's fertility.

Corn Ethanol Is Not Carbon Neutral

The use of biofuels like ethanol in the U.S. has expanded over the last decade under the assumption that they're better for the environment than gasoline. But plowing under grasslands to plant more corn for ethanol is one of the worst choices that could be made for the environment. Unbeknownst to many, biofuels such as corn ethanol are not carbon neutral. In fact, they're associated with a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions; they're even worse than gasoline when the water needed to grow corn is taken into account.

Research shows, instead, that ethanol-producing (i.e., corn) crops only offset 37 percent of carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning biofuels.9 Meanwhile, according to the Environmental Working Group (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.10

Further, 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.11 Grasslands, which have vast underground root systems, play a major role in storing carbon. It's estimated that one-third of the world's carbon stocks are held via these complex root system, which is nearly as much as is stored by forests.

Every time an acre of grassland is plowed, 60 tons of carbon dioxide are released into the environment.12 On the other hand, leaving grasslands as is and adding in compost has the potential to significantly increase carbon sequestration. In short, 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.

US Prairies Must Be Protected

It’s now common knowledge that deforestation leading to the tragic loss of vast swatches of rainforest is devastating the environment. Lesser known is the fact that U.S. prairies are as equally diverse and important to the ecosystem as rainforests; they’re also similarly threatened. Since the early 1800s, grasslands in North America have decreased by 79 percent — and in some areas by 99.9 percent.13 A report by the U.S. Geological Survey explained, in part, why this is so tragic:14

“Grasslands rank among the most biologically productive of all communities. Their high productivity stems from high retention of nutrients, efficient biological recycling, and a structure that provides for a vast array of animal and plant life …

Grasslands also contribute immense value to watersheds and provide forage and habitat for large numbers of domestic and wild animals. Nevertheless, current levels of erosion in North America exceed the prairie soil’s capacity to tolerate sediment and nutrient loss, thus threatening a resource essential to sustain future generations.”

The first taste of disaster derived from losing prairies occurred in the 1930s, when farmers rapidly plowed up the grasslands of the southern Plains and planted wheat in its place. With millions of acres of plowed fields and a chronic drought, winds picked up the soil creating thick clouds of dust called “black blizzards,” which covered the region in an unprecedented yearslong “storm.” It seems no lesson was ultimately learned, as grasslands are still disappearing at alarming rates.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly 2 million acres of federally protected grasslands and wetlands in North Dakota were taken out of the conservation program between 2007 and 2015.15

As Undark put it, “It’s easy to view North Dakota’s unending flatness as boring, empty, untamed. There’s a long tradition of seeing the prairie — this vast stretch of fertile, grass-dominated land — as negative space with no purpose other than to be transformed into something with purpose.”16 But, in reality, it’s the expansion of cropland at the expense of the prairies that’s ultimately threatening the Earth. Undark continued:

“Perhaps paradoxically, the expansion of cropland ‘may actually be undermining the very agricultural productivity it seeks to gain,’ write the authors of the Environmental Review Letters study.

Compared to cropland, grasslands ‘harbor significantly greater plant, microbial, and animal diversity, and generate higher levels of nearly all agriculturally vital ecosystem services, including pest suppression and pollination.’ To break prairie, then, is to dismantle the very supply chain that underpins American agricultural abundance.”

Support Grass Fed Farming and Regenerative Agriculture

Perhaps you can't do anything about how large-scale industrial farms continue to plow up valuable grasslands, but you can make a difference for yourself, your family and community that might have residual effects. Ideally, support farmers who are using diverse cropping methods, such as planting of cover crops, raising animals on pasture and other methods of regenerative agriculture.

Buying grass fed or pastured animal products, such as beef, bison, chicken, milk and eggs, is an excellent start. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) introduced much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed dairy,17 which will allow for greater transparency and conformity.18 The standard is intended to ensure the humane treatment of animals and meet consumer expectations about grass fed dairy, while being feasible for small farmers to achieve.

An AGA logo on a product lets you know the animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent forage, were raised on pasture (not in confinement) and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics.19 I strongly encourage you to seek out AGA certified dairy products as they become available. In the Midwest, the Kalona SuperNatural brand is the first dairy brand to become AGA-certified. Besides that, you can also:

  • Grow your own organic vegetables.
  • Try composting. Save those kitchen scraps, from egg shells and lemon rinds to coffee filters, and use them to feed your vegetable garden and flower beds.
  • Consider raising your own backyard chickens.
  • Convert your lawn back to a natural prairie or other natural space depending on your area.
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