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Corn, Drought, and Hunger

The drought in the Midwest is causing concern about the increasing prices of corn and other crops as their supply drastically decreases. However, prior to the drought bringing crop prices to headline status, waste and misuse have been the standard with our taxes providing outrageously large and misguided subsidies… mostly to animal feed crops that don’t directly feed our families.

The trouble is that animals eat much more food than they produce. It is a very inefficient process that wastes vast amounts of crops. These crops would feed many more people if used as food directly.  In fact, eighty percent of all the crops grown in the United States go into livestock feed.

The USDA reports that “sweet corn, eaten by humans, is distinct from field corn (used for feed) and is not being heavily affected by adverse weather at this point.”  With corn and the other crops, the drought is primarily placing strain livestock feed. Perhaps this drought will encourage dialogue about subsidized crops so that the government places a higher priority on the farming of fresh produce for direct consumption.

The following is taken from the EPA’s website:

Corn: The United States is, by far, the largest producer of corn in the world. Corn is grown on over 400,000 U.S. farms. In 2000, the U.S. produced almost ten billion bushels of the world’s total 23 billion bushel crop. Corn grown for grain accounts for almost one-quarter of the harvested crop acres in this country. Corn grown for silage (animal feed) accounts for about two percent of the total harvested cropland or about 6 million acres. The amount of land dedicated to corn silage production varies based on growing conditions. In years that produce weather unfavorable to high corn grain yields, corn can be “salvaged” by harvesting the entire plant as silage.

According to the National Corn Growers Association, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production. The crop is fed as ground grain, silage, high-moisture, and high-oil corn. About 12% of the U.S. corn crop ends up in foods that are either consumed directly (e.g. corn chips) or indirectly (e.g. high fructose corn syrup). It also has a wide array of industrial uses including ethanol, a popular oxygenate in cleaner burning auto fuels.

While covering the drought, The San Francisco Chronicle introduced us to Kenny Brummer, an Illinois corn farmer. Mr. Brummer has lost “800 acres of corn that he grows to feed his 400 head of cattle and 30,000 hogs.” Crop insurance will cover up to 150 bushels per acre. But no coverage is available for Brummer’s livestock, so he figures he’ll lose $350,000 to $400,000 on that side of the operation.

The article also mentions: “Already tight supplies and fears that the drought will get worse before it gets better have been pushing up grain prices, which are likely to translate into higher food prices for consumers, particularly for meat and poultry.”

The drought has the potential to increase retail prices for beef, pork, poultry, and dairy products later this year and into 2013.  But in the short-term, there may be increases in meat supply as higher feed costs lead to herd culling (the “removal” of less desirable cows). This extra supply could decrease prices for some meat products in the short-term, but that trend should reverse when product supplies eventually shrink.

When the experts report on increasing food prices, they neglect the inefficiency of meat and the role of livestock on climate change. It’s imperative that we connect the dots between the raising of livestock, high food prices, and environmental devastation (especially climate change).

At A Well-Fed World we advocate the redistribution of subsidies away from corn and other feed crops to fresh fruits and vegetables (especially for those in need).  Also, by promoting plant-based foods we lessen the demand for meat and other animal products helping decrease agribusiness’ push for feed subsidies. Finally, plant-based foods eaten directly instead of funneled through animals, can decrease food prices and increase food security around the world.