Where the Corn Goes

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn, by far.

So what we do with all that corn?  The answer will likely surprise folks who are used to the mantra of industrial agriculture:  “We feed the world.”

39% of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for animal feed.  30% is used for to make ethanol.  11% is used to make Dried Distillers Grains With Solubles (DDGS) (essentially it is combined with the waste from ethanol production to produce industrial animal feed).  7% falls into the “other” category–largely the production of byproducts like high fructose corn syrup.  7% of U.S. corn production is exported.

There’s not much on that list that qualifies as food.  For soybeans, the crop most often rotated with corn, the story is much the same.

Most folks probably don’t realize that the corn grown in the U.S. is inedible by humans, unless processed beyond recognition as corn.    Our corn isn’t being raised to feed us (or “the world”). It’s being raised to make ethanol and to fatten animals in feed lots and CAFOs (which in turn are eaten by consumers here or abroad).  So while it may be true that commodity agribusiness is in some sense “feeding the world,” it isn’t true in the way most would assume and it increasingly isn’t true at all.

It wasn’t very long ago that the U.S. was the world’s largest exporter of corn.  But as of last year U.S. corn exports fell to their lowest level since 1970 and Brazil and Argentina are now the world’s top corn exporters. Ethanol production is the primary reason for the decline in U.S. corn exports.

So who is importing corn?  Japan is the biggest importer now, but the USDA projects that over the next ten years China and Mexico will become the world’s biggest importers.  Chinese imports are skyrocketing, up over 20% already this year over last year and forecasters say Mexico will double the amount of corn it imports over the next ten years.

Over 80% of the world lives in “developing” countries.  As countries “develop,” their appetite for meat increases, and so, therefore, does their appetite for feed grains.

I’ve blogged before about the exploding demand in China for chickens.  With hogs the story is even more dramatic.  China is on course to be a permanent and very large importer of feed grains to feed its burgeoning meat animal industry.  A few months ago a Chinese company purchased U.S. industrial pork giant Smithfield Foods in a whopping (and record-breaking) $7 billion deal.  China is now the largest hog producer in the world. The amount of hogs added by China in just the last three years is more than the total amount of hogs in the U.S. today.

Those of us who farm organically are often told, “Organic agriculture can’t feed the world.”  I like to respond that it may well be that only organic agriculture can feed the world.  But as we look at what’s being done with all the genetically-modified corn being grown by industrial chemical-based agribusinesses, a fair question in response might be, “And just how is industrial agriculture doing that?”

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14 comments on “Where the Corn Goes

  1. bobraxton says:

    how naive of me / us to discount what folks in Kenya (our partners in mission) tell us: the “maize” from U.S. is for animals – we do not eat it – seems they are totally right.

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    • Bill says:

      Yep. It’s inedible. U.S. in-kind food exports for human consumption are wheat and rice.

      Interestingly, (as you probably know) in the rest of the English-speaking world “corn” is generic for grain (so wheat is corn too). “Maize” is the word for what we call corn.

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  2. jubilare says:

    I knew this in general terms, but the specifics really bring it home. “And just how is industrial agriculture doing that?” good question. 😦

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  3. shoreacres says:

    Good grief. It’s analogous to the situation in Liberia, where rice was the staple, but much of it was imported.

    Now, let me think about this. The gub’ment’s going to allow Chinese-processed chickens into this country. So we grow the corn, ship it to china, they raise and process the chicken and ship it back to us – along with a few pathogens for good measure.

    And this makes sense, how?

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    • Bill says:

      Oh, it’s crazier than that. The Chinese-processed chicken being imported into the U.S. has to be cooked first and the chickens have to be from Canada or the U.S. So the Chinese-processed chickens imported into the U.S. are actually raised in the U.S., then trucked to California, then floated across the ocean to China, then processed and cooked in China, then floated back across the ocean to California, then trucked to your neighborhood restaurants and grocery stores across America. That’s what American agriculture has come to.

      One interesting (and amusing, in a sad kind of way) side note about the Smithfield deal. China won’t allow the import of pork laced with rapactomine, the porcine growth hormone used by industrial ag that shows up in 20% of the pork sold in America. So to satisfy their new Chinese customers Smithfield and other American producers are starting to raise a portion of their hogs without using the hormone.

      It’s good enough for us, evidently, but not good enough for them.

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  4. I second the recommendation for the “King Corn” movie. There are a surprising number of books that deal with the topic as well, but they’re somewhat in the “preaching to the choir” category, and likely not picked up by those whose interest comes from the eating angle rather than the supplying angle. As a good toe dipper, I would recommend “Omnivores’ Dilemma” by Michael Pollan- the first section deals with the corn industry in America. “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” by Simon Fairlie is a deeply researched book that will leave you in absolutely no doubt as to the veracity of his viewpoint, but it’s not a light read. And the book that first opened my eyes to the corn issue before Michael Pollan published Omnivore’s Dilemma, is “Raising Less Corn: More Hell” by George Pyle.

    My Welsh Dad never ate what we call corn-he knew intellectually that it was “sweet” corn, but he couldn’t get past his upbringing that it was for animals.. And you’re right – he called it maize.

    I too find the global nature of food trade absolutely bizarre. As you mention, here in Canada we export a lot of chicken to China, where they process it and sell it back to us as nuggets, patties, microwave meals and chicken pot pie. Where is the business sense in selling your resource wholesale and buying the same resource back value added at retail?

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the recommendations. I have read and enthusiastically second your endorsement of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The other two are new to me but I’ve just added them to my (impossibly long) list.

      Your father’s story is interesting and reminds me of something from our family. We ate a lot of corn bread growing up. My grandfather grew the corn himself of course and I can remember going with him when he took it to the grist mill. Interestingly though he wouldn’t eat corn bread, because he remembered being a child during the Great Depression and having nothing to eat but corn bread and molasses, so as an adult he wouldn’t eat either. He really missed out because my grandmothers/mothers cornbread is amazing. Just had it at Thanksgiving. We only grow sweet corn here (this year the raccoons ate it all) but I’m thinking of adding some corn we can use for corn meal.

      The globalized food system really is bizarre. One of the reasons it makes financial sense to ship chickens to China for processing is that in this country (and likely yours) all consumers want these days is the deboned skinless breast (preferably processed into bite-sized pieces or sandwich-ready patties coated with who-knows-what, which they can pick up at a “drive thru” window and eat in their cars). The rest of the birds are mostly being exported to China these days. So now the Chinese will keep everything but the breast meat and ship that back over to us to eat as “nuggets” and “patties.” Precious few people in our country these days buy an actual chicken to cut up, prepare and eat.

      Interesting side note about sending chickens to China for processing–because it is “processed” the chicken is exempt from “country of origin” disclosure requirements. So there will be no way for a consumer to know if the chicken they’re eating came from China.

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      • I did not know that about the country of origin exemption. Wow. Makes me thankful I only eat my own chicken.
        Your granddad and corn bread/molasses from the Depression era. My Dad wouldn’t eat what he called brown bread (whole wheat) because he associated it with the Depression. He’d only eat white. Preferably homemade, but definitely had to be white.

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  5. I have read your post, Bill (a good one), and each comment (good, too). But forgive me, for I am feeling dangerously pessimistic just now. This is my comment: So long as humans are human, convenience and profit will rule. There’s no cure for it, no end to it, only the fact of it. What’s 5 million new visitors each year to local farmers markets across the US, 5 million local chickens sold and carried one mile home in the face of billions of hungry stomachs? And after these billions are fed? Convenience and profit.They’ll be lined up for lots of each.

    I am not giving up and neither are you, Bill. But sometime belief demands overly much irony.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right, of course, about the primacy of convenience and profit. We see it when folks are willing to pay far more for peas if we shell them first (and in countless other ways). As for profit, that’s a tough subject too. Our ideals and values may be great, but when the property tax bill arrives, they don’t pay it.

      For now I’m clinging to the belief that this culture tends to alienate people from their true natures. The industrial food system is just a part of the narrative of empire. Folks like us are just offering an alternative story, one that I think is increasingly resonating with people. Although I confess it’s tempting to just go about living as I wish and not worrying myself with why folks willingly drink high fructose corn syrup and eat fried Chinese chicken patty sandwiches in their cars. And sometimes I do feel the temptation to return to the matrix to have a pretend steak.

      Of course there’s nothing wrong with convenience and profit, per se. But I wonder (as I know you do) if people reflect on what they tend to do with the time they save and with their money. This 4 minute video suggests an answer to that: http://vimeo.com/79695097

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  6. EllaDee says:

    I worry also about the globalisation of food… not out of necessity but control and profit, and last week in Australia many of us held our collective breaths as the Federal Treasurer considered a $3.4 billion takeover bid for the GrainCorp (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GrainCorp) by US agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.

    Although there was support “The decision has drawn criticism from business groups and the Federal Opposition, who say it sends negative signals about Australia’s openness to foreign investment.”

    There was much opposition “The Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has defended Mr Hockey’s decision, saying the deal posed a number of problems.

    “One of those issues, I think around 30 per cent of ADM’s money comes from US subsidies, which means that ADM if they’d owned GrainCorp it would be highly influenced by the effect of a large stream of money coming into their coffers from the US Government,” he said.

    “And therefore it would be affected by US Government agricultural policy, and this is not in our nation’s interest.”

    Seems US Government agricultural policy doesn’t have such a good rep.

    But other opposition… interests were displayed tangibly when GrainCorp chief executive Alison Watkins resigned a few days after the decision, and will leave the company at the end of January to take over as managing director of the food and beverage producer Coca-Cola Amatil.

    (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-02/graincorp-alison-watkins-resigns/5128174)

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    • Bill says:

      How very interesting that folks there recognized how dependent these industrial agribusinesses are on government subsidies. It’s a reality that escapes many people. For those of us growing real food without government handouts, it makes it impossible for us to compete in prices. When people complain that food like ours costs more than food in the grocery store they need to consider that they’ve already paid a lot of the price of that food with their taxes. It’s maddening. Thanks for sharing this. Extremely interesting.

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    • bobraxton says:

      above the fruited grain America, America

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