"I believe that the great Creator has put ores and oil on this earth to give us a breathing spell. As we exhaust them, we must be prepared to fall back on our farms, which is God’s true storehouse and can never be exhausted. We can learn to synthesize material for every human need from things that grow." George Washington Carver

Most people are unaware of the radical changes in food production since WWII. One hundred years ago most people lived and worked on farms; today most people do not, and many have never even been on a farm. We have changed from an agrarian society to an industrial society. As a result, most people think that food is produced the same way it was 100 years ago. I personally knew that there were significant changes, but reading Michael Pollans’ book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” [1] was a revelation to me, and as I’ve read more I’ve continued to be amazed and sometimes appalled at current food production practices in the U.S..

The changes began with the Green Revolution in the middle of the 20th century. Through the use of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, new varieties of crops, use of new pesticides and herbicides, and industrialized systems, factory farms were able to greatly increase the grain yield (amount harvested per unit acre). This industrial system of agriculture is unsustainable. It relies on energy from a non-renewable resource, oil [2]. On average, it now takes ~10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy. In the process, oil-derived fertilizers and toxic pesticides and herbicides are used, and CO2 is emitted, in great quantities. Massive scale farming also began the era of perverse subsidies, perverse because they are harmful both to the environment and to the economy. Examples include paying farmers to overproduce crops such as corn and to leave fields bare during growing seasons, which can cause erosion and soil depletion, instead of employing crop rotation. Intensive agriculture also requires more water, and has led to the overuse of groundwater and falling water tables. Also, the standardization of crop strains during the green revolution has resulted in decreased natural and agricultural biodiversity. With less biodiversity, the food supply is at a greater risk to pathogens. In sum, the green revolution led to an energy-intensive, monoculture style of farming that is worse for the environment and produces food that is less healthy. You can also argue that it allowed for an expansion of the population, which allowed for an even greater negative impact on the environment. And as the growth in yield slowed, it was overtaken by the increase in population, so by 1985 the per capita production of crops began to decline, and grain reserves began to decrease [3].

Further changes began in 1973, when Secretary of the Interior Earl Butz made monumental changes in the way federal government dealt with farmers. Prior to 1973 the government paid farmers to let practice crop rotation (i.e., let soil lie fallow), generally by planting legumes every fourth year to replenish critical nutrients such as nitrogen in the soil ( For example, soybeans are commonly rotated with corn so that the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soybean roots can replace the nitrate extracted from the soil by corn. By controlling the amount of food produced, the government stabilized food prices and kept grain prices high enough to keep agriculture profitable. Butz thought it was wasteful to pay farmers to not plant the primary crop, usually cereals such as corn and wheat, especially when we could replace soil nitrogen using industrial chemicals produced from oil, so he changed the farm program. The emphasis was now on increased quantity rather than quality. Americans wanted cheap food, and large surpluses of grains like corn kept prices so low that the government had to start subsidizing grain farmers to keep them in business.

To increase efficiency, farms grew in size, and most family farms went under or were purchased by corporate farms. New corn hybrids were bred to withstand higher planting densities and tolerate the application of herbicides; the goal was to maximize the number of food calories produced per acre of land. But most of the corn grown today is less nutritious because it was bred for increased starch (larger endosperm), which results in a lower proportion of protein (smaller germ). And it is practically inedible for humans; farmers rarely eat the food they grow today.

Soon the corn surpluses became so large that new markets had to be developed. It was found that beef could be made more cheaply by force-feeding corn to cattle in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) rather than letting cattle graze on grass. Americans preferred the marbled, higher fat content beef that was produced: Grass-fed beef has 1.3% saturated fat, while CAFO cows have 8% fat because they are confined to small areas and do not get any exercise. Because cows did not evolve to eat corn, their bodies are unable to digest it properly. After about five months of eating corn, cows usually develop acidosis, where excess stomach acids eat through the stomach lining and produce ulcers. To combat the effects of acidosis, livestock consume 70% of the antibiotics used in the U.S.. Because of problems related to a corn diet, cows are usually killed after living only 140-150 days; it’s unlikely they would live much longer if allowed to. The cows often have trouble walking to the slaughterhouse because they never develop the necessary muscles. It’s sadly pathetic to see a cow flopping on the ground, unable to walk toward its’ own death.

But we still had too much corn. Why not use corn as a sweetener? Americans have a sweet tooth, but the price of sugar from sugar cane was high, and Americans like cheap food. So in the 1970’s food companies replaced sugar with High fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Since 1970 the average number of calories from sweeteners in the American diet has increased 30% [4]. Much of that comes from drinking soda pop, which used to contain sugar but now contains HFCS. If you read ingredient labels, you know that most of the processed foods you eat contain HFCS. Some, like pancake (not maple) syrup, are almost entirely HFCS. For our ancestors wheat was the dominant grain crop, but for us it is corn. Corn is now so widespread in our diet that is reflected in the carbon isotope composition of our hair. As a grass, corn uses a process called C4 photosynthesis that produces C with a higher 13C/12C ratio than non-grasses like wheat that use C3 photosynthesis and have lower 13C/12C. The hair of Americans typically has 13C/12C even higher than that of Mexicans, suggesting that we eat more corn than the true “People of the Corn” (corn originated in southern Mexico). We now eat and drink corn, and the animals we eat ate corn, so almost all of the food we take in is derived from corn.

But still we have too much corn. Why not use corn as a fuel? We could cut subsidies and thereby stop encouraging the overproduction of corn, but that would be politically unpopular: stop giving money to our farmers? Again, voters have a quaint, outdated image of the American farmer and his family, when in reality most farms today are owned by corporations. So President Bush had a great idea that would prop up the ebbing popularity if his political party: pay farmers to grow fuel. When this decision was made in 2007, the price of oil was on the increase. When it reaches a certain level, corn becomes more valuable as a fuel than as a food. So farmers started to sell their corn for use in the production of ethanol, and Americans felt good because when they gassed up their flex-cars they were helping Americas’ farmers and decreasing pollution. However, there is one fatal flaw in logic that you may have deduced. A huge amount of oil is used to produce that corn, so in reality you are not using any less oil to fuel your car even if you use 100% ethanol; you are simply paying Americas’ farmers to grow more corn that we don’t need. Today roughly 50% of corn today goes to feedlots; 32% is exported or turned into ethanol; and the rest is turned into corn sweetener (high fructose corn syrup).

1. Pollan, M., The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. 2007.

2. Manning, R., The Oil We Eat: Tracing the Food Chain Back to Iraq, in Harper’s Magazine. 2004

3. Wilson, E.O., Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. 1998, New York, NY: Vintage Books. 367.

4. Woolf, A., King Corn. 2007


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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