Thursday, August 2, 2012

drought of sanity?

Because I spent 90% of my life within 30 square miles these days, I have not been following the news well. But recently I have been researching and following the conversations going on about the Midwest's corn drought and it is making gears turn. If you are not familiar with the issue here it is in a nutshell.

The USDA has declared that 50% of the corn crop is basically destroyed from the drought. Their exact words are "poor and very poor condition." This is bad news. It effects everyone since corn has gone from on-the-cob to in-everything-in-the-supermarket. Droughts happen, but this one might skyrocket the price of many foods that buy corn to make their product. Things like meat and milk, processed foods and packaged things. More American kids know what a Pop Tart is than a buckwheat pancake so I assume this will ruffle some feathers.

And here's the rub: it is law in this country that 13% of our fuel contain ethanol. So if there are ethanol factories that legally have to obtain this short supply of corn, the supply gets even more dear. So farmers are asking Congress to rethink this 13% mandate because it can only make things worse, and it opens a whole other can of worms, so I ask you:

Should food be turned into fuel?

EDIT: Tomorrow's issue of The Guardian will feature my editorial/comment on this subject. If you aren't following the comments, read them and join in the conversation. This is important!
photo: esquire.com

42 Comments:

Blogger Matt_Middleton said...

Short answer: Heck no!

Long answer: Crops that can be used for food should not be used for fuel. However, waste materials should be fair game, including crops that might not be fit for human consumption.

August 2, 2012 at 8:56 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I just wrote a newspaper piece about this, and could not agree more. What Would be amazing is if CORN STALKS could be turned into ethanol.

August 2, 2012 at 9:00 AM  
Blogger August Johnson said...

No on corn to fuel.

The problem with using corn stalks into fuel is that now you're removing more nutrients that should be returned back to the land and that will require even more fertilizer be applied to the soil to make up for what was removed.

August 2, 2012 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger Mist said...

I think this country needs to seriously re-examine our relationship with corn (and soy and wheat and...).

I'm less concerned with using "food" as fuel than I am with using our precious, depleting top soil to grow food.

August 2, 2012 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Plant City Homestead said...

You hit on one of my pet peeves. Why in the world are we turning our food supply into fuel? What makes this even worse is that the ethanol is not good for our vehicles and actually reduces gas mileage. We tried this before in the 1970's and stopped when people started having problems with their vehicles. Our congress definitely has been suffering a drought of sanity for a number of years. Ag legislation is bad enough, but when the energy department starts making regulations that affect our food supply we are in big trouble.

August 2, 2012 at 9:49 AM  
Blogger LeaningDuckFarm said...

Short term gains for large grain producing farms is great as well as profits for every sub-industry hooked into the Ethanol business but there is a price to pay when production is impacted through any means, let alone drougth, and the price of meat and auto fuel goes up. There are better alternatives to ethanol from corn and the US policies that are responsible for establishing a base percentage of ethanol in gasoline really meant well since the farmers benefit and we use less oil but look at what ethanol has done to the price of corn in the last 10 years and the price of meat from livestock that feeds on it. Despite the good intentions the side effects are too costly and we need policies that are flexible and can adapt to changes that alter harvest yields and ultimately the economic system in place now.

August 2, 2012 at 10:40 AM  
Blogger Brenda London said...

it's a two edged sword. The fuel mandate gives farmers the contracts they need to continue.. Growing food just does not get the same priority with contracts and guaranteed prices, just look at what dairy farmers go through when the bottom falls out of milk prices. It's just an awful situation. I do hope it will drive more folks towards growing their own foods and/or supporting local farmers, getting back to basics where the need for corn products is not so great. Hopefully it will expand the market for other oil sources such as rice and soy. Meanwhile we will see more farms going bankrupt. My farmwife friends out west are beside themselves. No easy answer, but I do not see an issue with using food stuffs for fuel in and of itself.

August 2, 2012 at 10:46 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

No, it shouldn't. But you know, this is going to have a huge impact on those of us who raise meat chickens and have dairy animals, because it's going to be incredibly expensive to feed them next year. I was talking to the feed store owner, who said because the drought has eradicated the majority of the corn and soy crop, feed prices are going to skyrocket. The price of broiler ration is already going up. I plan to do some homework on how to raise chickens more sustainably than I've been doing. I don't know what to do about dairy goats - they lose condition so fast without grain.

August 2, 2012 at 10:53 AM  
Anonymous Walter said...

The elephant in the room no one wants to address is too many people both in the country and the world as a whole for renewable resources to support. Unless and until we willingly reduce the population, nature is going to do that for us. Drought, food, fuel, traffic jams, crumbling infrastructure, higher taxes, and crippling regulations are all symptoms of the result of turning a blind eye to overcrowding.

August 2, 2012 at 11:01 AM  
Blogger Sue said...

I have an issue with the GMO corn that everyone grows. It hurts the environment more than we know at this time, and while the droughts hurt many I wonder what the consequences of the GMO corn will be. Companies like Monosato are killing the earth and forcing the farmers to grow their tainted products, as well as forcing the FDA and Congress to not label food as made with GMO's. I am on the fence when it comes to using corn as fuel. We need better alternatives than ethanol and oil.

August 2, 2012 at 11:07 AM  
Blogger Sue said...

I have an issue with the GMO corn that everyone grows. It hurts the environment more than we know at this time, and while the droughts hurt many I wonder what the consequences of the GMO corn will be. Companies like Monosato are killing the earth and forcing the farmers to grow their tainted products, as well as forcing the FDA and Congress to not label food as made with GMO's. I am on the fence when it comes to using corn as fuel. We need better alternatives than ethanol and oil.

August 2, 2012 at 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenna,

As someone who has their Master's degree in energy management I absolutely do not believe we should EVER get our fuel from food. Not only does it take a enormous amout of land, corn and water to make 1 gallon of ethanol, but it is wasteful of precious natural resources. With so many people in this country and abroad that have issue getting food or are starving it is almost a travisty to use land to grow a food crop that is for the purpose of making ethanol.

Grace and Peace,

John

August 2, 2012 at 11:22 AM  
Anonymous condyle said...

"Should" is an interesting word to use. I don't particularly mind corn being converted to fuel on its face. If that fuel is used to, say, run some rich idiot's race cars instead of feeding someone who will otherwise die without it, or without its byproducts, that's probably not something we want. Sending corn stalks "back to the land" sounds ideal, but what happens most of the time is it's turned into animal feed (silage) and shipped off the land anyway. Anyway, it's not the stalks but the grain they convert into ethanol, because no one has figured out a decent way to make corn stalks into ethanol yet (sometimes called "cellulosic ethanol"). That leads to my biggest beef with all this, namely that the law in question mandates the use of plant-based ethanols, and was passed on the understanding that making plant-based ethanol from non-food sources (e.g. cellulosic ethanol) would become feasible sometime shortly after the law was passed. It has been six years, and that pipe dream hasn't materialized yet, so the law continues to inflate food prices. But spreading that news is hard, because "cellulosic" is hard to pronounce so many Americans will tune it out, and voting to repeal a "green" law like that would be politically unpopular. Anyway, I'd rather see the corn being made into ethanol than "corn sugar", for whatever that's worth.

August 2, 2012 at 11:34 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Walter, there's no argument here with that logic. Too many people, and it's going to be a hard and fast lesson when the school bell rings

August 2, 2012 at 11:36 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Diane, do you think bringing the goats to diversified pasture will help?

August 2, 2012 at 11:37 AM  
Blogger Amy McPherson Sirk said...

I don't think that food should be fuel but then, I don't think corn should be fed to ruminants. My county is at the very worst of the drought scale. We are 16 inches below normal rainfall so far this year and the shallower irrigation wells have run dry. My own farm has experienced 50% loss in yield so far and the disaster relief available does not apply to urban farms so we're just out of veggies and out of luck.

August 2, 2012 at 11:58 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Amy, here here!

So here's my question. Why don't more people care about this?

If we are using a bastardized GMO corn to fuel our cars instead of feeding animals who should be eating grass...maybe we're in more trouble then we realize.

August 2, 2012 at 1:03 PM  
Anonymous H said...

Walter, I wholeheartedly agree with you! The argument you make is just one of the many reasons we chose, many years ago, to be childfree :-)

August 2, 2012 at 1:18 PM  
Blogger August Johnson said...

Jenna: "If we are using a bastardized GMO corn to fuel our cars instead of feeding animals who should be eating grass...maybe we're in more trouble then we realize."

Exactly! That's why what you are doing here, teaching the skills you are, is far more important than many people realize.

August 2, 2012 at 1:57 PM  
Blogger Diane said...

Hey Jenna! I think it's helpful for any dairy animal to have access to pasture and browse for the majority of their feed, but I'm not sure it would be enough for a dairy goat in full lactation, with both me and her kids milking her. When I hit the lottery and can buy a piece of land with enough open space for a huge pasture, I'll let you know how it works out. :) In the meantime, I want to look into buying locally sourced grains and mixing my own feed for goats and chickens.

August 2, 2012 at 2:17 PM  
Blogger jules said...

I believe that the Government is stifling the growing of alternate sources for the production of ethanol. In Brazil, they grow sugar cane and sugar beets. I know I read somewhere that there are groups lobbying the Government NOT to produce our ethanol from these crops. Probably the corn lobbyists. Sugar cane and sugar beets can be produced for ethanol and the corn could be saved for food and feed.

August 2, 2012 at 3:21 PM  
Blogger becky said...

the real question is why do we put corn in everything?

August 2, 2012 at 4:12 PM  
Blogger chesapeake said...

ethanol pisses me off, it's just another red herring from the car/oil industries to pacify people. (bike lanes, more public transportation would be better).

at the core of this issue is this: stop primarily feeding cows grain.

the end.

August 2, 2012 at 7:02 PM  
Anonymous iacowg said...

As a farmer of corn and soybeans, I can tell you that this is a very complex issue. We have about 600 acres in crops.

Monsanto is bigger than you can imagine, and the deleterious effects of glyphosate are even bigger. What is a realistic alternative?

When land sells for $10000/acre (when it should be about $2-3000) and a farmer cannot make anywhere near that per acre in order to buy land, the land goes to the big farmers or to developers.

Sure, buy local and grow local is wonderful (BTW, anyone want beef?), but what about the fuel you use to drive to these markets, especially since you go more often because the food is fresh?, what about the labor-intensive methods involved to actually support a family or two from this type of farming? Are you willing to pay a premium? And pay that premium time after time?

I dream about feeding the world. Team me up with Howard Buffet...
But such a conundrum exists even there. Do you all see Norman Borlaug as a hero? All the lives he saved is a great thing worthy of a Nobel Prize, but there are more mouths to feed and then they reproduce. Of course sustainable practices were and are taught, but with marginal and ruined land they can only do so much.

So my point is: this is a bigger issue than just changing crops. There has to be a market and one not controlled by BIG business and politicians. Until then, we play the game and do it ethically. No antibiotics in the feed, don't eat factory farm pork or chicken, and don't belong to the cattlemen's assoc. or the corn growers', etc.

Vote Democratic!!

August 2, 2012 at 7:59 PM  
Blogger Maggie in Tally said...

Becky, because corn syrup is a (well, until this year anyway) cheap filler. It's cheaper than cane sugar syrup, and we modern Americans have a sweet tooth gone wild.

August 2, 2012 at 8:34 PM  
Blogger deodar said...

Please all you who haven't all ready, go to justlabelit.org. and support them. I walk my dogs past a corn field every morning. One day I could smell that they'd sprayed the corn. Two days later everything around and between the corn was dead and brown but the corn was green and growing. Scary huh? That said, that same corn field has pretty much succumbed to the drought, no genetic modification for that!
I don't think we should use food for fuel. I recall the gas shortages back in the 70's, everybody was up in arms, we need alternative fueled vehicles. The gas shortage went away and so did the interest. Either that or the car mfrs. buried the research. Here we are looking for fuel 40+ years later and no realistic alternative fuel vehicles. What have they been doing in all that time?
Re: the hay, we're fortunate, we trade our 11 acres tillable to the local farmer for hay. Some years he makes out like a bandit, this year I think we will. I was in the feed store the other day and the owner told me he'd already received 4 or 5 calls that morning looking for hay and none to be found.

August 2, 2012 at 9:02 PM  
Blogger Bethany said...

The problem here is monoculture crops. The idea of using a regenerative fuel isn't necessarily a bad one, unless it uses more petroleum to grow than what the crop produces and leaves the earth vulnerable. There is a cost for transportation, and it will be paid one way or another. The question is, can we produce enough renewable fuel without the use of petroleum in a polyculture environment. I think more study needs to be done to determine the answer.

August 2, 2012 at 9:14 PM  
Anonymous H said...

@iacowg, to answer one of your questions, yes, I am willing to pay a premium for local, and even with travel fuel, I'm still not using nearly the resources that it takes to transport goods thousands of miles across the globe. If more people gave thought to how they were really spending their money, the argument against premium prices wouldn't be strong enough. How many people bitch about the cost of certain foods, yet insist on having cable tv, Internet access, gas-guzzling trucks, computers, cell phones, new clothes each season, other toys, gadgets, etc? Of course, choosing to be childfree (as I mentioned earlier) not only addresses the issue of unsustainability of the rate of resource use, it also allows me to spend my money on things that are a priority to me, particularly good healthy food :)

I'm a bit nervous about November this year, and I just hope people will heed your advice about voting!! ;)

August 2, 2012 at 9:23 PM  
Anonymous H said...

(and apologies for diverting from the real topic at hand Jenna! Looking forward to reading your article tomorrow!)

August 2, 2012 at 9:46 PM  
Blogger kandy Gray said...

one good thing, i was at my local big hardware store this week and walked by 2 plug in stations for electric cars!!!! the first of many i hope!!!!

August 2, 2012 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger kandy Gray said...

one good thing, i was at my local big hardware store this week and walked by 2 plug in stations for electric cars!!!! the first of many i hope!!!!

August 2, 2012 at 9:53 PM  
Anonymous iacowg said...

You are right H....we have strayed. For the record, I am not in favor of corn for ethanol. A major paradigm change is needed: solar power, electrical (without coal as power for), etc....

August 2, 2012 at 10:12 PM  
Blogger Sewing Machine Girl said...

Switch grass makes more ethanol per acre than corn, but it is perennial grass and no one can make money selling seed. So...

August 2, 2012 at 11:44 PM  
Blogger katiegirl said...

I have a problem with field corn and soybeans being called "food" anyways. Food for animals maybe, but should they really be a part of *our* food supply? They're only in our food supply as processed foods, and we don't really need to be eating that junk anyways.

And most corn stalks are not turned into silage, because if corn is harvested for grain the stalks are too dry to ensile. Sometimes corn stalks are baled for feed, but most often they are left in the field.

August 3, 2012 at 7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The corn they use for ethanol isn't really food anyway! I think the whole agribusiness system needs to overhauled. Maybe this disaster will be a step in the right direction...

August 3, 2012 at 7:59 AM  
Anonymous Kasey said...

First we have to define "food". Most of the corn and soybeans growing in this country is better described as "food components". These crops are broken down and reassembled into processed foods, the same foods that are causing so many health problems. Add the GMO and chemical farming practices and what we have is a government sponsored disaster. Scientist have been warning us for years about this weird dependence on factory farming with only a handful of varieties of crops. We need to go back to the small diversified family farm, growing and eating locally. Let's stop needing so much fuel.

August 3, 2012 at 7:59 AM  
Anonymous janet gordon said...

Where to start?
aybe just a few talking points - corn and tobacco, historically have depleted our soils far more rapidly than any other crops have. In another life, I lived for 18 years in Southwestern Ontario within the corn and tobacco belt. I watched the same fields year after year being planted to corn - feed corn that is - with no crop rotation whatsoever. This planting required copious amounts of artificial fertilizer, and then copious amounts of weedkiller. Gradually over the years, the nature of the soil changed before my eyes - becoming a lighter colour and very very fine and dusty. Rain caused it to melt into a slippery sliding mud that sught the lowest level of the field and with time the weed growth appeared not to respond to spraying. The soil was essentially dead at this point and dried up and blew away in the winter.
At the moment, hogs are growing as a factory farmed by product of corn and guess what - this pork is being exported to China because the smaller more sustainable Chinese producers cannot meet the pre=ice of our factory farmed pork. We get to live with the waste from these farms though.
Perhaps the elephant in the room is world trade and the extreme length of supply chains and perhaps we need to look at our consumerism and need for novelty and entertainment and go back to locally produced goods and services, including food. I applaud the people who are making simpler lives understandable and accessible for more North Americans.

August 3, 2012 at 10:31 AM  
Anonymous iacowgirl said...

"We need to go back to the small diversified family farm, growing and eating locally."

So, Kasey, how exactly would you do this? Do you have any idea what is involved in making an actual living doing this? Input costs? Land prices? Markets? Not to mention the masses of urban dwellers who have no access to locally-grown food...

Many of my farming peers bemoan the fact that the way they or their parents grew up on the farm has changed drastically, yet going back to 150-200 acres supporting a family of five is not realistic.

My husband works a full-time job off the farm and I have a non-farm-related job in addition to us both farming full-time. We ARE diversified: crop rotation, pasture rotation, conservation tillage, wetland and forest set-asides, and using animal manure as fertilizer all we can, yet we couldn't make it without our outside incomes. We refuse to put up stinking hog factories like some of our neighbors and we refuse to plant only corn row-to-row like the giant farms.

It is just not as easy to retain the family farm, while being a steward of the land as you all might think...that is the point I'm trying to get across..

August 3, 2012 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger redbird said...

@iacowgirl, wonderful comments. People like you and my Dakota farming friends prove that there’s still spirit and spunk and a future for American agriculture despite all Monsanto, etc… are throwing at you. There has to be change ahead—hopefully it happens sooner than later.

August 3, 2012 at 7:36 PM  
Anonymous Kendra said...

Crops should not be used for fuel, but we should not base most of our food supply on a single crop either. It is a recipie for disaster. My advice would be to find an alternative to fuel period. Our society is much too dependant on fossil fuels which makes us vulnerable to shortages. If everyone grew enough to feed themselves in their backyard and walk or rode thier bike everywhere, we would be a much healthy nation (not only in terms of physical health, but economic health as well) Sometimes the answer is so simple that it can be hard to see.

August 3, 2012 at 8:29 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I couldn't agree more that food should not be turned into fuel. I do, however, have some concern that the GMO corn grown over much of the midwest is not real food. One can definitely see an increase in obesity, diabetes and other diet related illnesses since this corn has been put into nearly everything we eat.

Check out the documentary "King Corn". It was a real eye opener.

August 4, 2012 at 8:14 AM  
Blogger blind irish pirate said...

Think about how much meat plays a part in America's meals. Grain fed beef is just as much of a staple as corn chips. And as far as lactating ruminants go... gosh, I guess if you (you being our clientele at the large animal clinic) have to feed XX pounds of grain a day to your dairy cow so she can produce 30 liters of milk in a day, otherwise her production is down, it seems maybe she doesn't need to produce that much in the first place. And considering the health issues that come from ruminants on high grain diets... It's really not natural.

All of this is so much more complex, like it's not just about corn and fuel or about meat and milk. Our first world problems have become global problems. The reliance on easy transportation and consumption of natural resources and demand for excessive luxuries boils down to just greed and convenience.

We're looking at this drought lasting two to five years. It's kind of scary, having grown up in a state that has thunderstorms and flash floods every June... and one of the few storms I've seen so far this summer just happened six hours ago.

August 5, 2012 at 1:27 AM  

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