As I write, farmers across the Midwest are risking their livelihoods, betting against the odds, and using the latest mechanical, satellite, and computer technology to plant this year’s crop of corn. This crop will, in turn, produce food, feed, energy, pharmaceuticals, industrial products, and billions of dollars in economic activity worldwide. Corn is not additive, toxic, carcinogenic, unsightly, or smelly. While the growing of corn has some environmental impacts, it also has climatological benefits. So, with all this in mind, why do so many powerful people in high places hate corn?
Having covered agriculture for more than 30 years, I am well aware that there is political opposition on issues like ethanol, livestock production, trade, crop insurance, biotechnology, conservation, water use, and a host of other agriculture-related issues. Yet, at the root of much of this opposition is a bias against corn. Beth Elliott, Washington-based lobbyist with the National Corn Growers Association, told the Indiana Ethanol Forum last week that “People on Capitol Hill just don’t like corn.” What has corn ever done to them, I thought, except provide them with the food and fuel they depend on every day? When I pressed Elliott for a reason why corn is so disliked in Washington, she was at a bit of a loss to pin it on one thing.
She theorized that much of it had to do with a lack of understanding and accurate information about corn. She pointed out that many of the people who are whispering in the ears of elected officials are their 24 year old staffers. Many are recent political science or pre-law graduates who have no on-farm experience or who have probably never even seen a corn plant in person. In addition, activist groups have been very good at spreading lots of misinformation about corn.
If you are big oil who is threatened by ethanol, well you want to demonize corn. If you are an animal rights wacko, you want to spread falsehoods about the primary feed source for livestock: corn. If you are an environmentalist, you love to bash corn even though corn has more positive environmental impacts than negative ones. The same is true for those who oppose free trade and biotechnology. In short, all the things that make corn such a vital crop, also make it a target.
Yet, the continued growth of corn is vital to both the U.S. and the world. According to the USDA, corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the United States. Most of the crop provides the main energy ingredient in livestock feed and is produced on over 90 million acres of land in the U.S. each year. The United States is a major player in the world corn trade market with between 10 and 20 percent of the corn crop exported to other countries. The United States accounts for about 40 percent of world exports of corn. Corn is at the heart of the American diet. The average American consumes more than 1,500 pounds of corn, which breaks down to an astonishing four pounds per day for every man, woman, and child living within U.S. borders.
While the importance of corn is not news to those of us in agriculture, the fact that so many people hate corn may be a bit of a shock. Ms. Elliott said the corn industry has not done a good job of telling its story to those in policy positions. Likewise, farmers who grow corn have not told their story to their elected leaders. Perhaps after we get this corn crop planted, we should spend some time telling elected officials, neighbors, and just about anyone who will listen why the crop you just planted is so important.
By Gary Truitt