Sunday, February 13, 2011

Everyone wants a piece of the pie—and the pie just isn’t big enough!

One morning earlier this week I found myself attracted to an article in the local Syracuse paper discussing the rising corn prices.  To the average Joe—booorrrrinnng, but naturally for me, being the farm kid and agriculture major, I started to read it sipping my coffee at the nearby diner (after a long morning of barn work, I might add).  It’s main point— the corn surplus this year will be as low as it was in 1996, consequently from crop failures and drought from this past summer.  Other information, such as rising demand from the ethanol industry, and numbers were mentioned, such as the cost of corn might hit an all time high of $7.65.  So by then, my analytical mind was running at full throttle and my blood was starting to simmer—over the fact that, in many ways, environmental policy and a national thirst for energy and pleasure items will cost the poorest and most vulnerable the most—not to mention the economic health of the country.

Corn is used in almost everything—the big focus recently by consumer advocates seems to be on all the high-fructose corn syrup that is supposedly found in EVERYTHING.  Well, no kidding, we love sweets and this source of sweetener has emerged to be the most efficient.  At the same time, the government subsidized and regulated ethanol and bio-fuels industry is stuffing their faces with the commodity.  Yet still, dairy, beef, poultry, and hog producers are using corn to feed their livestock, like always.  Corn might as well be considered gold by standards today, it is not just a food source—it fuels the economy as well as our cars.

Now let’s look at the statistics, shall we.  The latest outlook at World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates published by the United States Department of Agriculture, February 9, 2011, figures that out of the total supply of 14.175 billion bushels of corn in the United States, 4.950 billion bushels will be used for ethanol production, which closely matches the 5.2 billion used for feed and residual and 6.35 billion for food, seed and residential use.  Even more so, the year’s surplus is projected to fall in at 675 million bushels, 5% of the starting supply amount, and the same as in1996, the last time we saw multi-year lows (World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, 2011).  And you guessed it, corn prices are at near all time highs—adding strain to pocketbooks all across the already floundering U.S. economy. 

Again, 35% of the United States corn supply is being used to fuel our cars and meet federally mandated ethanol production and use—in the name of sustainability and preserving/strengthening environmental integrity.  While at the same time, feed costs are staggering for dairy and meat/egg production industries—adding to the cost of these products—those that actually provide tangible sustenance.  

Using a food source for energy can lead to devastating circumstances—and this should make perfect sense.  For further proof, it is projected by the United Nations that by the year 2050 there will be a World food shortage.  A comprehensive report outlines the statistics, but simply put, there will need to be a two fold increase in grain production to come close to meeting projected demand.  

With ever vanishing land resources, eroding consumer confidence in food sources (GMOs for example), increasing use of food sources for bio-fuels—it makes perfect common sense that the current trends need to be altered and misconceptions corrected to provide the necessary insurance against this devastating fate.  

Time matched with ever improving advances in production efficiency can only do so much.  Policy and cultural norms will be the deciding factors, more or less.  So my advice to you—think about your consumption of goods that originate from corn.  For example, there is a sign on your local gas pump that says something to the tune of “contains 10% ethanol.”  And though not all ethanol is produced solely from corn, 35% of the U.S. stockpile is used in its production.  Also, take a look at how many of your food sources contain a corn derived ingredient.  Now, consider all the other foods you consume that are indirectly linked to corn, not to mention plastics, etc.  How big is your piece of the pie?   
Supply and Demand, it is a very simple concept—now through Mother Nature into the model—it just got a lot more unstable, right?        
"World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates ." 9 February 2011. United States Department of Agriculture . 13 February 2011 <>.


  1. I have a few questions revolving around food vs. Fuel. Many advocates for environmental sustainability will tell you that 'livestock' is not healthy for environment anyway. Human nutritionists will tell you we should eat less meat.....
    So--should American's change their eating habits? Maybe we should eat more veggies and less beef? This would cut down on the demand for corn and make-way for the ethonal industry.

  2. Excellent questions! Take a look at the following article—it encompasses both of our points!

    People in developing countries currently consume on average one-third the meat and one-quarter of the milk products per capita compared to the richer North, but this is changing rapidly. The amount of meat consumed in developing countries over the past has grown three times as much as it did in the developed countries. The Livestock Revolution is primarily driven by demand. Poor people everywhere are eating more animal products as their incomes rise above poverty level and as they become urbanized. By 2020, the share of developing countries in total world meat consumption will expand from 52% currently to 63%. By 2020, developing countries will consume 107 million metric tons (mmt) more meat and 177 mmt more milk than they did in 1996/1998, dwarfing developed-country increases of 19 mmt for meat and 32 mmt for milk. The projected increase in livestock production will require annual feed consumption of cereals to rise by nearly 300 mmt by 2020. Nonetheless, the inflation-adjusted prices of livestock and feed commodities are expected to fall marginally by 2020, compared to precipitous declines in the past 20 y. Structural change in the diets of billions of people is a primal force not easily reversed by governments. The incomes and nutrition of millions of rural poor in developing countries are improving. Yet in many cases these dietary changes also create serious environmental and health problems that require active policy involvement to prevent irreversible consequences. (Delgado, 2003)

    Delgado, C. L. (2003). Rising Consumption of Meat and Milk in Developing Countries Has Created a New Food Revolution . Retrieved February 14, 2011, from The Journal of Nutrition :