So What's So Bad About Corn?

"When we planted this crop, people said we were the villains of the world," said Bill Couser, a corn farmer in Nevada, Iowa. (By Andrea Melendez For The Washington Post)
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, 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.

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