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Why Do We Grow All This Corn?

Corn Harvest
Combine harvesting corn

As the combines roll across millions of acres of farmland in the US this time of year, hundreds of millions of non-farm consumers drive by on interstates and county roads and ask, “Why do we grow all this corn?” It is a logical question when you have no idea what you are looking at and have no idea how the farm economy impacts your daily life.  Research has shown that a large number of those motorists believe the corn they see flying past their windows is actually sweet corn, or popcorn, or canned corn, or corn oil.  Some believe the corn they see is being used to make ethanol, while others know it is for livestock feed. Of course, to a certain extent, they are all correct — although the actual percentages in each category would surprise most. Harvest represents an opportunity to take advantage of people’s curiosity and provide some education about corn.

According to the National Corn Growers Association, the average American consumes 25 pounds of corn per year. When consumers think of corn consumption, they tend to think of corn products they know such as sweet corn, popcorn, corn flakes, or corn oil.  Corn, however, can be found in a wide variety of food products that do not have corn in their name. Sixty-two percent of a kernel of dent corn is starch which makes it ideal for a variety of industrial uses including carpeting, sandpaper, glue, shoe polish, fireworks, and tires.  Less than 20% of the kernel is protein and fiber and only 3.8% oil — the parts most used for food.

Corn is king in the US; it is the largest crop grown by American farmers and makes the US the world leader in corn production, accounting for 32% of all the corn grown in the world.  Why we grow so much corn (about 87 million acres each year) is because we can.  As Dr. Bob Thompson points out, the US is the only place in the world that has the climate, soil, water, and topography to produce corn in the amounts we do.   And it is a good thing we do because, without this level of production, the world — including the US — would be a hungrier place. About 200 million bushels of corn are used to produce food products, about 400 million bushels go into producing corn sweeteners, 135 million bushels for beverages and alcohol, just under 2 billion bushels for feeding beef animals, 1.5 billion to feed chickens, and about a billion bushels for producing pork.

Being the biggest crop, corn has become the target for those who oppose modern agriculture. The biotechnology bashers are especially critical of corn since 82% of the corn produced in the US is GMO corn. What the fear mongers fail to mention is that, of that 82%,  more than half (52%) is stacked trait hybrids which means they have a natural resistance to disease and insects. This means a farmer has to use less, or in some cases no, fungicides and insecticides on his crop.   In short, biotech corn which has NO proven ill effects is actually more environmentally friendly than non-GMO corn.

Anti-ethanol advocates also like to pick on corn. They thrust with a two pronged argument: that too much good food producing corn is being used for fuel, and that ethanol is driving up the cost of corn and, thus, food.  Despite the fact both of these charges have been disproven time after time, they still get quoted by the media and circulated on the internet with regularity.  Corn used in ethanol production peaked in 2010 and has been declining ever since. About 4.5 billion bushels of corn was used for ethanol in 2012.  But that is only part of the story, a large percentage of that corn was returned to the food chain in the form of by-products produced after the ethanol process is complete. Ethanol has also kept gasoline prices lower than they would have been otherwise. And, corn prices have been cut in half in 2013, so the grocers will have to find someone else to blame for their continued high food prices.

Next time someone asks “Why do we grow all this corn?” just give them the facts.  If, however, you are too busy harvesting this $80 billion crop, give them a copy of this article and tell them to drive to their local fast food outlet in their car on tires and fuel that contain corn, sit in a plastic chair made from corn, and eat a hamburger made from corn fed beef while drinking a soft drink made with corn sweetener, and read this article on why we grow so much corn.

By Gary Truitt