So What’s So Bad About Corn?

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post; November 23, 2007

NEVADA, Iowa — To say that corn is king around here is to come close to demoting it. In the last couple of weeks, the farmers of this state finished harvesting an astonishing 14 million acres of corn, which is more than a third of Iowa’s surface. The yield: nearly 2 1/2 billion bushels. That’s about 420 billion ears of corn, or about 225 trillion kernels.
A phone call to Tim Recker, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, found him in his combine, harvesting the last of a bumper crop.
"I got 225-bushel corn that I’m doing right now, which is phenomenal," Recker said by cellphone from a field near the town of Arlington. That’s 225 bushels per acre. For a corn farmer, that’s living in the tall cotton.
And yet, despite the fabulous harvest and the boom in ethanol made from corn, corn farmers often sound beleaguered and aggrieved. Corn, they say, has been getting a bad rap.
"You have to wear a flak jacket," said Bill Couser, who farms 5,000 acres here in the central Iowa town of Nevada (pronounced ne-VAY-da). "When we planted this crop, people said we were the villains of the world."
This mundane plant, once arguably dull as dirt, its name useful as an adjective ("corny") to describe something kind of lame and hillbillyish, has become improbably controversial. The gist of the criticism: So much corn, doing so many things, serving as both food and fuel, and backed by billions of dollars in government subsidies, has been bad for America and the rest of the world.
Start with food prices. Corn and its derivatives are in thousands of items sold at a typical grocery store, and corn is trading on the market at about twice the price it was just a couple of years ago. There are ripple effects everywhere. More acres in corn mean fewer in soybeans, and so soybean prices are also up. Soybean extracts are all over the grocery store, too.
Meanwhile, there are ethanol skeptics. They say production of ethanol has outpaced the infrastructure — flex-fuel cars, for example — for using it. A 51-cent-a-gallon federal subsidy to ethanol blenders helps keep the ethanol market commercially viable.
Environmentalists decry the impact on soil, waterways and wildlife of so much acreage planted in vast tracts of a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry plant. Tens of thousands of acres in Iowa once set aside for conservation were plowed this year for corn. The Iowa landscape is a patchwork of corn and soybean monocultures, with about as much biodiversity as a bachelor’s refrigerator.
Corn, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is even accused of causing the national obesity epidemic.
A new documentary that skewers corn, "King Corn," has won rave reviews. And corn plays a starring, and nefarious, role in a recent book, "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," in which author Michael Pollan reveals that, at the molecular level, Americans have ingested so many corn-derived substances that we are essentially walking corn chips.
Recently Jean Ziegler, the United Nations expert on the "right to food," called the diversion of food crops to biofuels a "crime against humanity." The United Nations later distanced itself from those remarks. But they were already in the wind in corn country, where farmers, up to their eyeballs in corn, are wondering what exactly they have done wrong.
The Demand for Ethanol
Here in the town of Nevada, dead center in Iowa, you’ll find Couser, a farmer, feedlot owner and ethanol entrepreneur. From many miles away, you can see rising from the fields of corn stubble the silo-like fermenting tanks of the new ethanol plant, Lincolnway Energy, where Couser serves as chairman of the board. At the plant, corn mash makes glucose and ferments into alcohol.
"It’s just an old still back in the woods. It’s no different. It’s just bigger," he says of the plant. "It’s basically 200-proof corn whiskey."
A byproduct is a sawdust-like substance called dry distiller’s grain with solubles — huge piles of which are in a warehouse at the distillery, ready to be hauled off and fed to livestock somewhere in the Midwest. It’s good feed, Couser said.
"And it smells good. Does this place stink?"
No: Much of the ethanol plant smells like a bakery. Yeasty.
Last year, the federal government banned a gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), because it was polluting groundwater. Gasoline blenders needed another "oxygenate" — designed to reduce air pollution — and quickly turned to ethanol. Corn prices surged. American farmers planted 93 million acres of corn, up from 78 million a year ago — the largest crop by acreage since World War II.
As if corn needed yet another boost, the political calendar ensures that the road to the White House starts in Iowa. One candidate after another has put on a hard hat and safety glasses and admired the ethanol plant in Nevada.
Republican Fred D. Thompson, a former opponent of ethanol subsidies, came through a few weeks ago and said he’d changed his mind. Democrat Bill Richardson gave a speech recently in Des Moines about major threats to the environment, but said of ethanol, "It’s so far superior to our addiction to foreign oil, you have to go full speed ahead."
Bucking the trend is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said recently in a speech in Ames, just down the road, that he opposes all government subsidies that distort the free market: "I’ve never known an American entrepreneur worthy of the name who wouldn’t rather compete for sales than subsidies."
McCain, however, has never counted on getting many votes in Iowa. Because of his position on subsidies, he didn’t even campaign here when he ran for president eight years ago.
‘We Don’t Have the Land’
Once, much of Iowa was a "pothole prairie," an open terrain pocked with wetlands. Now it is a completely managed landscape. It has few forests. You can search a long time in Iowa before finding anything that you could call the Wild.
If the nation’s leaders have their way, there will be yet more corn here. The Energy Act of 2005 mandated the use of 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2012, and that’s just for starters.
"The president’s goal is to have 35 billion gallons of biofuels by 2017, and we’re currently at 6 billion gallons. That would mean a huge increase in land for corn," says Jerry Schnoor, a University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering. "The environmental constraints are just too great. It’s too much nutrients, too much soil loss, too much pesticides. We don’t have the land."
Ethanol advocates vow that the next generation of technology will make ethanol more attractive environmentally. Cellulosic ethanol could be made from cornstalks or, better yet, from perennial crops such as switchgrass. But that’s the future. Today, corn, and specifically corn kernels — little nuggets of starch — are the sole source of commercial ethanol.
"The thing about ethanol: It’s not a perfect solution for our energy, but it’s a pretty good one. You don’t throw out the good in search of the perfect," said Julius Schaaf, who farms 4,000 acres in Randolph, Iowa, and is chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.
Both Food and Fuel
Driving around Nevada in the truck he calls Bob — for "big ol’ beast" — Couser grew increasingly combative. He groused about "tree huggers." His way of farming is sustainable, he says. On his feedlot, he uses an innovative system of waste disposal that state officials have praised. He owns lake property and says, "I want to make sure that when I go out in my water scooter, that that water’s clean."
As for the professors who criticize industrial agriculture, Couser said, "Have they come out and taken a handful of dirt and seen how black it is?"
It is, indeed, as dark as spent coffee grounds — espresso roast.
Couser grabbed an ear of corn (planted from MonSop santo No. 6163 seed, which he said gave the corn good "standability" even in a stiff autumn wind), shucked it, broke off some kernels and popped them into his mouth like candy.
He made a mental calculation.
"It’s about 16 percent moisture," he said. Dry enough to harvest. "It’s hard to believe you can put that in your tank, isn’t it?"
It’s food; it’s fuel; it’s in every product imaginable. It’s the plant that ate Iowa.
Couser said he knows the precise geographical center of the state. He drove up a road, past his house, past his feedlot, took a left through more corn and soybean stubble, and pulled his truck onto the soggy edge of a humble and nondescript patch of open field, the pinpoint center of the heart of the Corn Belt:
A hayfield.
So there’s still one of those left.