Corn Farmers Coalition

Executive Summary

Thanks to tech-savvy, innovative farmers, there is plenty of corn to eat, make ethanol, feed cattle and even export a big piece of America’s largest crop.

In 2008, corn prices briefly doubled as a new type of customer - the ethanol plants that make automobile fuel from corn - began using more corn. Meanwhile people worried that floods in the Midwest would crimp the corn crop.

Corn’s other customers started worrying about scarcities. And the resulting high prices pinched profits for these older, traditional customers for corn, like beef producers and food-makers. Used to decades of inexpensive, plentiful corn, these customers complained about Congress and the federal government promoting ethanol.

Their argument: If this new customer was going to use so much corn, the world had to choose between corn for food and corn for fuel; there simply wasn’t enough to do both.

A Bogus Argument, a False Choice

Well, the debate, known by the short-hand “food versus fuel,” is over. And, it turns out, we don’t have to choose. There is plenty of corn to eat and plenty for making ethanol and plenty for feeding cattle and plenty more to export and still more to make chemicals and fabric. After peaking briefly in July 2008 at more than $8 a bushel, prices slid to less than $4 by the end of the year and hovered there through the first quarter of 2009.

What happened? American corn growers - mostly small family farmers - produced the second-largest harvest ever in 2008, more than 12 billion bushels. Yields - bushels produced per acre - rose too. In fact, thanks to new technology, yields are likely to double in the next 25 years.

Huge combines guided by high-tech global positioning systems, now pick the corn and harvest kernels from the cobs right in the field - a century’s worth of technology removed from farmers in horse-drawn carts who plucked each ear by hand.

Best of Both Worlds: More Corn, Cleaner Environment

Meanwhile, the environmental impact of growing corn declines every year:

  • Biotechnology makes corn resistant to insects, which means less pesticides.
  • Farmers grow five times as much corn as they did in the 1930s - on 20 percent less land.
  • Farmers manage their fields differently, using reduced- or no-till management systems, which protects soil from erosion.
  • And farmers today produce 70 percent more corn per pound of fertilizer than as recently as the 1970s.

Little of this would matter if we were talking about kale or broccoli. But corn is by far America’s biggest crop, and the world’s, too, bigger than wheat or rice or soybeans. Corn is a staple food in the Americas and much of Africa. Corn is one of the cornerstones on which our entire food system rests.

Surprise! Most of the Corn Grown Is Not for You to Eat

Yet few people realize only about 1 percent of the crop is the sweet corn that we buy frozen, canned or on the cob at the grocery store. The vast majority of the crop is instead commercial “field corn” used for other purposes.

Half the U.S. crop goes to feed cattle, pigs and poultry. Another quarter goes to ethanol, and 20 percent is exported. The rest goes to make food ingredients, chemicals, fabrics and plastic.

For years farmers have quietly grown all the corn the country needs, with little fanfare and little excitement but for the occasional natural disaster.

That changed in late 2007 when Congress increased the amount of ethanol and other biofuels it wanted blended into the nation’s fuel supply to 36 billion gallons by the year 2022. That will equal 15 percent of the gas we use today - leading to less imported oil, greater national security and less pollution from gasoline. It has brought both kudos and criticisms to farmers.

Corn’s Customers Complain about Competition

In 2008, sky-high oil prices pushed food prices to levels not seen in modern times. The food manufacturers didn’t like it; the livestock feeding operations, accustomed to cheap corn, didn’t like it. And the oil companies, feeling threatened by ethanol and trying to divert attention from their profits while their customers got creamed at the gas pump, didn’t like it, either.

But, in fact corn prices haven’t even kept up with inflation over the years. Below-cost feed saved the broiler-chicken industry more than $11 billion and the pork industry $8.5 billion between 1997 and 2005, Tufts University economists found.

The old corn customers cooked up a slick, expensive public-relations campaign to blame this new customer, ethanol, for driving up the price of corn and raising food prices. The country, they contended, had to choose between food and fuel when it came to corn.

As we now see, that was nonsense. It wasn’t long last year before corn fell back to around $4 a bushel as corn farmers kept the country and the world plentifully supplied with corn.

A New Coalition, a New Corn Story

Now that argument is over, our group, a coalition of corn farmers from 10 states, has allied with our trade association, the National Corn Growers Association, to highlight the contributions of today’s high-tech and innovative corn farmers.

We are also working to reform and modernize the Farm Bill so it costs taxpayers less and provides an adequate safety net for the crucial agriculture industry.

And finally, we’re educating legislators, the media and the public about corn. Yes, in the great scheme of things, in the midst of an economic meltdown and the beginnings of a new presidency, the problems of the corn industry might seem to rank way down the ladder.

Yet to think that way is shortsighted. If people know how important corn is to our food system, our economy and even our national security, and could understand the market a little better, we’d be less likely to have the kind of silly debate we had last year over food versus fuel. Instead let’s not let this distract us from debating more important issues such as reforming the Farm Bill.

For there is plenty of corn to go around, and that is not going to change.

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