King Corn

Off the keyboard of Roamer

Published on the Doomstead Diner on May 3, 2013

Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

So I am waiting out the bizarre Midwest snow storm before I engage in corn planting. As someone keen on small scale low tech pasture based farms and desirous of a grain free paleo diet it’s a pretty odd situation I am. In a week or so I’ll sit in a tractor a couple days on end and plant in automated comfort the same land 10’s of family farms used to derive a living from. Its not all that unlike modern warfare, GPS based guidance systems, chemical sprays, high tech cockpits all to launch a chemical blitz on the land in the name of “progress”.

Today I am pondering though the nature of this progress, why have markets come to favor this system of food production, is it really more efficient than what it replaced? What follows are some order of magnitude calculations to put things into perspective on a calorie to calorie basis.

Pasture Based System Gross Caloric Yield

Dairy cattle and their rumens are incredible efficient at converting grass proteins, sugars, and starches into

healthy milk. The net caloric yield from a milking cow is approximately 2-3 x higher than an efficient beef based converter. It is not a coincidence that whole cultures evolved around the partnership with these amazing animals to survive there difficult climate and soils.
Typical conversion factors for cows to produce milk on grass are most strongly correlated with dry matter, assuming access to necessary minerals and water and healthy living conditions cows should be able to average a conversion of 1.4 lbs of milk per pound of dry matter (DM). Annual dry matter yields per acre are much more variable, in favorable ample moisture midwest ground I am working on DM yields should range between 3- up to 8 tons/acre/year.
3-8 DM Tons/acre x 1.4 lbs milk/lbs DM= 4.2tons milk-11.2tons/acre
Using an average of 272 cal/lb of milk we can get an estimate on the maximal gross caloric yield a pasture based ag system should be capable of producing.
272 cal/lb*8400-22400=2.3X10^6 kcal/acre-6.1kcal/acre

Corn Based Gross Caloric Yield

Average corn yields on the same chunk of ground come in around 140 bushels per acre. Straightforward caloric analysis shows that this system produces around 5 times more calories per acre than the best case pasture scenario.Corn gross caloric yield=139,000cal/bushel*140bushels/acre=19,460,000 Cal/acre ~5:1 gross caloric outyield on dairy system So surely that means the Monsanto and all other “green revolution” shills are right, we’d starve if it weren’t for their grain techs and chemicals.
Far from it….

The graph at the right breaks down where the 2011 corn crop went.
As is evident only ~10% of corn is used for direct consumption in the USA (of dubious nutriative value), 39% is used for ethanol, and 37% used for beef. Assuming a 10% corn to meat conversion efficiency, US human caloric production per acre of corn is 2.63 x10^6 Cal/acre, which is actually right with the lower case gross caloric yield for grass based scenario.

This is to say nothing at all of the terrible nutriatitive quality of corn calories. The high fructose corn syrup may as well be a net negative when long term health problems associated with it are weighed in.
It is also omitting the net inputs that we must put into the corn operation, the nitrogen, the herbicides, the processing ect. It is also omitting the top soil degradation of both organic matter and erosion that occur over time with corn. The loss of biodiversisty, the destruction of aquifiers were also ignored.

In the end corn to me looks like the perfect leverage point for banksters to centralize and mine the land, at the expense of the health of the land and the people. The arguments of superior efficiency and productivity are not sound. Look at the end use of corn, it is really pretty poor as a food, it was NEVER about feeding anybody except the wallets of those vested in maximizing returns at the expense of the agricultural system and the land.

Fossil Fuel Slaves Out-competing Honest Farmers


If though pasture based farming can produce equivalent amounts of calories at higher nutritive value, why have we adopted corn? I believe the answer is all about labor maximization through the leverage of fossil fuels. Automation and mechanization has lowered labor costs /bushel. Pasture based agriculture though does not allow for centralization beyond perhaps a herd of a few hundred. Somebody still has to move the cows, bring them in, milk them and care for them, put up hay ect. There is no way for outside benefactors (Cargill, adm, Monsanto, John Deere Ect) to manipulate and squeeze profit out of the system, where grain based systems allow for precisely that. Pasture based has inherent decentralized limits built in by natural protocol, grain based with the adoption of mechanization has no such limits (until peak oil and declining EROEI are seriously upon us).

Pasture based systems also suffer by not being able to consistently access markets, despite the vast superiority of the food the produce. ADM, Cargill and the like all figured corned grain markets, and because of its longer term stability they were able to centralize and in effect control the ag land of the US. People for progress call pasture based aged inability to be centralized a problem, I call it a solution, and a cry to relocate and redistribute people closer to small town America.

You get what you pay for and you are what you eat…..

There is nothing really redeeming to be said of this system of corn agriculture. It is I suspect more at the heart of our societal collapse than many consider. No system in the history of the world has disconnected people from the land and natural cycles of life to the degree of this unholy mass mechanized chemicalized system has. Its largely responsible for our failing health as a nation, our failing rural communities, our deep disconnect with land and our food, topsoil depletion, and aquifer pollution. We fall for it though, we see the linear math and the raw calories and assume its a necessary evil to “feed the world”.

It started I believe when we as a people bought en large the notion that low price food was the end all. This favored labor centralization and grain production. Quality of food and land followed. There is not likely any way we can have sustainable agricultural systems without having a little higher costs to cover the larger degree of labor input that is needed. This does not mean that these systems do not produce enough to feed the world, sustainable system can produce the gross calories needed at far higher qualities, its just that the dollars need to go to empower the labor needed to maintain lower chemical and energy input systems.

Its a bad cycle though we get trapped in, tight margins and we are tempted to skimp on food. Its made all the more worse by the multitude of confusing hippy dippy or corporate “organic” options designed to lure the concerned consumer into feeling good about his/her purchase. It is though something we vote for every trip to the grocery store, and whatever way we vote I think we really need to stay educated on where our food is coming from and its effects on the environment and our bodies. Its likely a bigger deal than any of us might tend to consider.


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