The Mass Production And Industrialization Of Corn

Is There Such a Thing as Sustainable Corn? The environmental impact of growing corn, and how it contributes to our environment.

Corn has been a farm crop for generations.

Scientists estimate that corn was first cultivated 10,000 years ago in Mexico by indigenous groups. While yellow and white corn is commonly found in stores for food, there is also corn that has red, blue, pink, and black kernels. Corn is mainly classified by the texture of its kernel. We have dent corn that's used for animal feed and flour corn that's utilized in beloved foods like cornbread and tortillas. There's also sweet corn, flint corn, and popcorn. As one of the largest plant-based food sources, farmers have even engineered certain varieties of corn to withstand droughts and pests.

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A Brief History

While the terms "maize" and "corn" are used interchangeably, maize is most commonly used in scientific contexts. We get the word "maize" from the Taino people, who called the crop "mahiz," which translates to "source of life" or "bread of life" in their native language. The Taino people lived in the Caribbean and occupied what is now Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

As mentioned, the domestication of corn is believed to have begun in south-central Mexico 10,000 years ago. However, at that time, it was teosinte, a plant with fewer kernels and a smaller cob than today's modern corn.

Over the years, farmers bred the plant, and once Europeans arrived in the Americas, corn was an integral part of the daily diet. Maize was present thousands of years before it made its way to areas like the New England region in the United States. Native tribes in that region not only used the crop as a food source but also made the corn husks into bed mats, moccasins, and twined bags.

Today, corn is used in multiple ways and found in several products that still go beyond food, like biofuel. Because of its versatility, corn has entered an era of mass production and industrialization. But how exactly does the global production of corn affect the planet's environmental health, and is there a compromise to be made in order to keep the balance?

How Is Corn Produced?

Growing corn takes up more land than any other food crop in the world. In the U.S., the midwestern region where corn is mostly cultivated is referred to as the American Corn Belt. This mainly includes the states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and a few more. The industrialization of the corn belt took off after the conclusion of World War II.  

During this agricultural industrialization, farmers had access to new seeds that produced hybrid varieties, and many of them turned to farming crops rather than tending to livestock. New practices entered the scene as well, like engine-powered machinery that allowed higher turnouts. Assembly line jobs that were previously carried out by people became the new tasks of machines, which cut down on both time and the cost of paid labor. The hundred years between 1900 and 2000 even saw manpower drop from 41% to 2%. One machine commonly found on the field is a combine harvester. This vehicle completes several jobs as it moves through the crops. It first cuts the crop from the ground and separates the gain from the rest of the plant. The grains get stored in a tank while the materials that aren't needed get dispensed back onto the soil. Some machines take those extra plant materials and bundle them for use as bedding for farm animals.

Machines weren't the only addition to modern farming; there was also a major shift in the products used to cultivate these crops. Commercial fertilizers and chemicals became the preferred way to control pests and produce bigger harvests. From the 1960s to the 1970s, pesticide use increased by 143%.

These practices were implemented with a variety of crops and not just those in the midwest. In California, the massive spike in chemical use eventually led to the workers' rights movement led by iconic figures Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who advocated for better conditions and pay. They eventually founded what is now the United Farm Workers labor union.

While farmers' working conditions are more regulated now, we still must evaluate how mass corn production affects the planet, especially since the U.S. produces the majority of corn in the world. The 2021 Crop Production Annual Summary released by The Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) found that corn production went up 7% from 2020, making it the second-highest increase on record. A total of 15.1 bushels of corn were cultivated in the U.S. in that year. But why do we grow so much? For starters, corn produces a high yield, and it can be grown in many different places. Because it can be used for food, ethanol, biobased plastics, high-fructose corn syrup, and more, there is a hefty profit to be made.

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The Versatility of Corn

The average person may only think of food products when the conversation of corn production is introduced, and no one would blame them. There are endless types of food items that contain corn in some form or another. Cornstarch, corn syrup, corn grits for breakfast cereals, masa, tortillas, and cornbread are just some of the few. Despite this, food products don't make up the majority percentage of what's produced from corn harvests. Instead, the number one spot is ethanol, followed by livestock feed.

The Ins and Outs of Ethanol

Thanks to the high percentage of carbohydrates found in corn, ethanol can be generated from corn in large quantities. Starch is a carbohydrate, and because crops can be grown over and over, ethanol is classified as a renewable fuel. Once farmers harvest the crop from the field, the moisture levels in corn are tested. Corn then passes through a hammer mill, where it's converted into a powder called meal, which releases starch within the corn.

Enzymes are then added to break it down into sugar. During this process, the meal is combined with water, and heat is applied at a high temperature, getting rid of any bacteria. The sugar is then combined with yeast to ferment the product. Afterward, the distillation process begins by separating the ethanol from water. Ethanol can be found in several products but is most commonly put into a mixture with gasoline. In gas stations around the country, their gasoline contains about 10% of ethanol. Doing so reduces the amount of pollution in the air. Most ethanol is derived from corn; however, scientists have been testing the fermentation of giant kelp as an alternative way to create and collect ethanol.

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Feeding Livestock

Corn (or maize) is a feed grain, meaning it's used to feed livestock. Feedstock also includes sorghum, oats, rye, and barley. Matured corn has a lot of starch, is low in protein, and provides a lot of energy.

In this state, it's great as a supplement or as a component of feed that has other ingredients. Cows, pigs, sheep, and goats all typically have a diet that includes corn. However, corn feed isn't recommended as the primary source of nutrition, especially for cattle. When cows solely consume grain, it disrupts their digestive system, and they can become acidotic.

Farmers across the nation are growing corn just to keep their livestock well-nourished.

As such, some farms opt-out of grain feed and give their animals corn silage instead. The main difference between grain feed and silage is the portion of corn that's included. Traditional corn feed only uses dry corn kernels, while silage uses the entirety of the plant. While animals can have a hard time digesting grain feed, silage balances out the diet by having both fiber and the grain. Either way, farmers across the nation are growing corn just to keep their livestock well-nourished.

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The Sticky Truth of Corn Syrup

In a standard supermarket, corn products can be found as a canned good, in processed foods, in the produce section, and even in beverage aisles. Although no one is drinking corn juice (as far as we know), high fructose corn syrup is an artificial sugar found in some juices, sodas, and processed foods. It rose in popularity among food manufacturers in the 1970s due to its affordable cost. To create it, corn is broken down into starch, and that is then broken down into syrup. The syrup contains mostly glucose, and a portion of the glucose is transformed into fructose to make it even sweeter.

Corn syrup has a generally negative reputation amongst the public for its effects on health. Its name is well-known, yet high fructose corn syrup still does not have enough conclusive research to determine whether it is better or worse for us in comparison to other sweeteners. Despite the unknowns, too much consumption can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and put consumers at a higher risk for heart disease. As with any kind of sweetener, Doctors recommend that added sugars like corn syrup should only make up 10% of a person's daily diet.

Impact: Economy vs. Environment

Corn is the largest crop produced in the United States; therefore, it's no surprise that the American economy relies on the corn refining industry. Based on the findings by corn.org, There are an estimated 7,200 people directly working in the industry as well, with a collective total of $900 million in wages paid. On a larger scale, there are over 200,000 food manufacturing and storage facilities in the supply chain. Overall the industry brings in over $718.2 billion in taxes and 43,464,211 jobs.

Whether it's grown to help power our vehicles or to sit on grocery shelves, the American food and energy industries rely heavily on corn production. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 40% of U.S. corn is used to make ethanol and an estimated 36% for animal feed. Corn production provides so many uses, and objectively, there is nothing wrong with growing corn to feed livestock, the human population, or as a way to decrease gasoline pollution. However, the current practices of corn production may not be sustainable for our planet.

As with most crops, corn is cultivated using chemical fertilizers and pesticides—both of which runoff into the water and the surrounding soil. The water pollution eventually reaches the ocean and causes dead zones where marine life can no longer thrive. Growing corn in large quantities also creates a monoculture that strips the land it's grown on from biodiversity while also stripping the soil of its nutrients.

In 2019, another disappointing discovery was made in a study on corn crops which concluded that the ammonia from fertilizers was the leading cause of air pollution by corn. A terrifying 4,300 premature deaths have been linked to corn's air pollution. The irony in corn production attempting to alleviate air pollution while simultaneously contributing to it, leads one to question if generating ethanol from corn is as beneficial as most believe. Determining whether the current scope of the corn industry is sustainable requires examining its benefits and drawbacks at every step of its production process.

The water pollution eventually reaches the ocean and causes dead zones where marine life can no longer thrive.

Reshaping the Corn Industry

Transforming the mass production of corn into a sustainable industry would be a mighty task. The air pollution from fertilizers, water and soil pollution from pesticides, and the gas required to power the vehicles that harvest the crops are just a few of the factors that need better alternatives. Plus, corn crops require a lot of water, leading farmers to irrigate water from underground while still relying on natural rainfall.

From 2011 to 2017, a special project brought in 140 scientists together to figure out how to create a farming system that was both productive and sustainable in the Corn Belt. Funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, The Sustainable Corn project looked to help farmers keep their crops resistant in the face of climate change. The team looked into solutions like drainage water management to reduce the output of nitrates to downstream water and keep water in the nearby soil. They also researched nitrogen management measures to decrease CO2 and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizers.

In the face of a changing climate, creating sustainable farming practices is vital. Crop rotations to keep soil healthy, polyculture farming to maintain biodiversity, looking into natural pest removers, and better waste management are just some of the methods we can invest in so that the agriculture industry isn't a detriment to the planet.

If more farmers chose to rotate corn crops with wheat, alfalfa, hay, and barley, then corn wouldn't completely deplete the soil of its nutrients. Incorporating what's known as cover crops helps to slow erosion and improve soil health. Farmers could also stop tilling the land, a process that turns the soil with machinery. Leaving behind this application tends to decrease soil erosion as well. About 21% of U.S. farms practice no-till, but that percentage has been on the rise. With a no-till system, farmers would save money on fuel and keep the environment cleaner at the same time.

If more farmers chose to rotate corn crops with wheat, alfalfa, hay, and barley, then corn wouldn't completely deplete the soil of its nutrients.

While there are several solutions to making the corn industry sustainable, there are still a handful of challenges that stand in the way of making notable progress. As reported by scienceline.org, The U.S. Farm Bill only allocates 7% of federal spending money for conservation practices. Additionally, many farmers don't own the land they work on, and as a result, they don't always have a choice in which crops they cultivate. Most also rely on subsidies and insurance from the government. Because the federal government favors corn and soy, that is what is mainly produced.

Even though seeing change at the federal level can be a slow process, local and state governments can also provide loans and incentives for farmers to incorporate more sustainable practices. States like Michigan and Nebraska issue fees on pesticide and fertilizer use that fund their separate conservation programs. Michigan's Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program, in particular, helps farms reduce their agricultural pollution risks.

On an individual level, shoppers can always show where their alliances lie using their wallets. Buying organic corn and organic produce, in general, tells the agricultural industry that food free of harmful fertilizers and pesticides is what's important to the public. Those with access to nearby farms and farmers' markets can help by shopping for their groceries with these local vendors. Farmers who sell to these markets minimize waste and pollution by doing so. The shorter the distance food takes to get to the consumer, the better it is for the planet.

Business Takeaways
  • Crop rotation is a vital part of sustaining soil for the future.
  • The federal government has to place more importance on crop diversity in order for crop rotations to be a realized norm nationwide.
  • No-till farms can cut expenses for farmers and cut down on pollution for the earth.
  • Consumers can make the switch to organic products to protest against chemical use in farming.