Environment

Is Corn Leading Us Towards Social Change or Ecological Disaster?

Understanding corn could be the key to social change that saves the planet and helps us create democratic communities and local food supplies.
Understanding corn could be the key to social change that saves the planet and helps us create democratic communities and local food supplies. Or, left to the philosophy of corporations like ADM, Cargill, Monsanto and DuPont, ignorance and inaction will make corn, a gift of Mother Nature and ancient civilizations, a curse to destroy ecosystems around the world and add to the problem of global warming.

In recent years corn became a topic of concern thanks to the writing of Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine and his best-selling book, the Omnivores Dilemma (I am the featured corn farmer in this book.) The corn we're talking about is harvested as a grain, not the sweet corn for summer picnics. Ancient societies in Mesoamerica worshipped corn because it could be stored from year to year in reserves to prevent famine in case of crop failures. The natural co-evolution of corn (like wheat, rice, or soybeans in other civilizations) involved saving seed that seemed to exhibit the best characteristics for yield, adaptability, and usefulness.

The basic problem with corn and its companion crop, soybeans, is that they required destroying the natural prairie which allows for soil erosion. Also, these crops, using fossil fuel intensive techniques and fertilizer, can produce more simple protein, carbohydrates, and oil per unit of land and labor than any plants on the planet. They can be shipped almost anywhere and used for livestock feed, corn sweetners, vegetable oil, processed foods, industrial inputs and many other uses. Without proper government policy, the natural tendency of the "free market" is for these crops to be planted horizon to horizon in a virtual monocropping system. Another consequence is the tendency for intensive livestock production using corn and soybeans as livestock feed, rather than extensive production on family farms with soil conserving crop rotation and waste recycling.

In the United States, with its vast land resources including the deep rich prairie soils and cheap fossil fuel, the industrial revolution allowed the exploitation of these resources along with the productivity of crops like corn and soybeans to industrialize our food supply. Railroads, highways, refrigeration, and many forms of corporate-controlled technology created an abundance of food without most people recognizing the costs to society or the environment in the process. Despite many economic catastrophes through the years, it wasn't until the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that the federal government in Roosevelt's New Deal finally stepped in to remedy the inevitable problem of over-abundance--low commodity prices and soil and water degradation.

Giant agribusinesses who process and export food or who provide technical inputs to corn and soybean production would rather have the "free market" lead to overabundance because it improves their bottom line. Other corporations like cheap food to feed their workforce and to displace rural people to become members of that work force. This is why these corporations used their political power to end New Deal farm programs and usher in "globalization" under various free trade agreements like the WTO and NAFTA. Rather than requiring corporations to pay fair prices to farmers, recent farm bills substituted billions of taxpayer dollars paid to crop producers (subsidies) just to avoid a collapse of the farm economy. Globalization extended the process of industrialization, rural displacement and land degradation internationally. So while it seems that "subsidies" benefit farmers and cause over production, it's the corporations who benefit and actually require taxpayers to finance the destruction of diversified family farms around the world.

The democratic and environmental answer to the undemocratic free market is the concept of Food Sovereignty championed by the international movement of farmers, peasants, and farmworkers called La Via Campesina. Food Sovereignty requires democratic policy to assure fair prices to farmers and wages to farm workers, the avoidance of wasteful overproduction, control over cheap, low quality imports, provision of food security reserves, conservation of land, water, and biodiversity, social control over potentially disastrous technology such as genetic engineering, and facilitation of local food production.

The farm bills recently passed in the House and Senate and proposals from the Bush administration still enshrine the downward spiral of the global free market. There will be no price floor under commodities, no food security reserve, no control over cheap imported commodities for the industrial food and agrofuel system. Providing for conservation and local food system will be a difficult if not impossible task. But if we want our food to do what it's supposed to --- feed people, not greedy corporations --- we need to prioritize Food Sovereignty today.
George Naylor raises corn and soybeans on his 470 acre family farm near Churdan, Iowa. He recently completed his fourth and last year as president of the National Family Farm Coalition. Naylor is a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. He and his ideas are featured in Michael Pollan's best-selling book, The Omnivores Dilemma.