Americans love corn. This year, our nation planted nearly 85 million acres of it, making it our largest agricultural crop. (The second-largest crop is soybeans, with a little more than 76 million acres planted this year.) That’s according to the USDA. It makes sense that we put so much of it in the ground; sometimes it seems like everything we produce in this country comes with a side of corn.
Much of our massive corn yield goes to livestock feed—half of it, the way the Northern Crops Institute tells it. And the rest—the stuff that isn’t shipped to Mexico, that is—gets turned into things like corn starch, ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, corn-based ink, along with multifarious other additives and fillers that go into making diapers, plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, adhesives and practically anything else you can buy in a grocery store.
Corn has so permeated our lives that it’s hard to eat a meal without ingesting some, especially if you consider the fact that the helping of meat on your plate was most likely raised on it as well. “To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn,” writes Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
“ ... increased temperatures can actually kill things.”
Ben Flamm, federal field director for Environment New Mexico
The reason why all of this corn talk matters is because corn in the U.S. is about to suffer. That’s according to a report released on Friday, May 8, by Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy organizations.
In brief, the report says global warming is raising the Earth’s (and the nation’s, and New Mexico’s) temperature. Corn likes lower temperatures. Raise the heat, get less corn.
What the report, called "Hotter Fields, Lower Yields," doesn’t include in its estimates are other effects of global warming such as more extreme weather patterns and an increase in disease, pests, weeds and ozone pollution. Still, it predicts that based on temperature rise alone, the U.S. stands to lose $1.4 billion a year on corn production ($1.7 million of which will come out of New Mexico's pocket).
“Are we still going to lose [crops] because of heat or because of no water? Or will we change cropping patterns?”
Tim Darden, assistant director of the Agricultural and Environmental Services division with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture
“We chose corn for this report because it’s a bellwether,” says Ben Flamm, federal field director for Environment New Mexico (our state’s chapter of Environment America). What happens to corn will likely happen to the rest of the agricultural industry.
Are these findings a surprise? Since global warming equates to higher amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, Flamm says it’s a conventional belief that it would benefit food systems. “Based on that alone, it should help crop yields,” he says. “But increased temperatures can actually kill things.”
And we are heating up. According to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the world’s 10 warmest years on record all fell in the last 12 years. In New Mexico, according to Flamm’s numbers, 2003 was our warmest year on record, 2000 was our fourth warmest, and 2001 and 2005 tied for ninth.
“I think we can’t say that global warming’s not real and that what we do doesn’t have an effect. Humans do have an impact.”
Keith Bolin, president of the American Corn Growers Association
But while the planet is getting hotter, not everyone is convinced the result will be an impaired agricultural system.
Tim Darden says any effects of global warming will only be seen on a case-by-case basis. Darden is the assistant director of the Agricultural and Environmental Services division with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. “In a lot of climate change literature, it says it will get wetter in some areas and dryer in other areas,” he says. Doña Ana County, he points out, is already hot. He wonders whether fields down there will really be affected. “Are we still going to lose [crops] because of heat or because of no water? Or will we change cropping patterns?”
New Mexico’s agricultural industry has seen a decline in profit, he says, but that could be due to a myriad of reasons beyond temperature, such as high fertilizer prices, the cost of fuel, planting less certain crops, and on the list goes.
“I’m not saying climate change has nothing to do with it,” he adds, “but it depends on where you sit, how well producers have managed their risk, how much water is available.”
“I will tell you that weather is still the biggest factor to farmers.” That’s Keith Bolin. He has a long list of titles to add to his name: corn grower, hog farmer for 48 years, avid wind power supporter (he and his wife helped build the first wind turbine in their county), advocate for local food systems ... and president of the American Corn Growers Association. He’s also a steadfast believer in global warming. “I think we can’t say that global warming’s not real and that what we do doesn’t have an effect. Humans do have an impact.”
Bolin says he’s noticed changing weather patterns hurting crops, and he’s not the type to sit idly and watch it happen. He wants to ease the effects of global warming by focusing on the aforementioned local food systems and alternative energy.
That’s music to Flamm’s ears. Flamm says the mission of Environment America’s report was to draw attention to alternative energy. After the passage of the stimulus bill in Congress, farmers who dedicate a portion of their land to a windmill can bank between $4,000 and $8,000 in federal money. He advocates that the money be used to help offset financial losses from the changing climate, while saving on energy costs through alternative energy.
The report also serves as a way to advocate for the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, presented to Congress for debate by Reps. Henry A. Waxman and Edward J. Markey. Among a variety of other things, the bill would call for the nation to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2025. “It would be the first time, really, in our country’s history that we’ve established federal standards for global warming reductions and truly committed to addressing the problem on a legislative level,” Flamm says.
The bill might provide further incentives to farmers, as well as to everyone else, for clean energy. But will they be used?
Bolin from the American Corn Growers Association thinks so, but he’s wary of farmers and other noncorporate entities getting ripped off. He says people with a low number of windmills are often paid less per kilowatt than large wind farms. “They don’t want guys with one or two wind turbines to have a fair shake,” he says. Still, he says he wants to see these programs move forward. “It’s a common sense solution.”