Corn, and what's wrong with it

April 25, 2002

ARGUING AGAINST corn is like arguing against Mom and apple pie, but here goes:

As much as we all love a fresh ear of corn on the cob, or a corn tortilla or a serving of polenta, America's favorite crop is primarily used for animal feed, corn sweeteners and auto fuel. It has less to do with sturdy, independent family farmers than it does with sprawling, petroleum-dependent agro-industrial complexes.

Corn takes a tremendous toll on the nation's soil and waterways. It gobbles up a considerable amount of federal subsidies. Almost any way you look at industrial corn, there's a lot wrong with it, and that's why a Senate vote to triple the amount of corn-based ethanol in the nation's gasoline supply is so troubling.

Ethanol seems as if it ought to be a good idea. Mixed with gasoline, it burns cleaner, helps reduce our dependence on imported oil, and provides an outlet for American agriculture. Our consumption of ethanol has increased nearly tenfold in the past 20 years, to more than 1.6 billion gallons a year.

Yet it simply doesn't bear a closer look.

Scientific studies show that ethanol is uneconomical, drives up the price we pay for other corn-based products, and wreaks more environmental havoc than it forestalls.

But America's ethanol program also provides a billion tax dollars a year to the larger corn growers, chief among them Archer Daniels Midland. And if the provision approved by the Senate on Tuesday becomes law, that will look like ... well, small potatoes.

The United States devotes 80 million acres to the cultivation of corn, much of it prairie far more suited to wheat. More fertilizers and herbicides are used on corn than on any other crop. Marylanders are familiar with the damage that nitrogen runoff from heavily fertilized farmland has done to the Chesapeake -- but that's a tiny fraction of the flow of chemicals down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

An acre of corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels, according to a study done by David Pimentel, an agricultural scientist at Cornell University. It yields about 328 gallons of ethanol -- not spectacular, perhaps, but seemingly worthwhile.

But ethanol doesn't flow out of the cornstalk. Corn only becomes ethanol by running it through an energy-intensive processing plant -- and by that time, 70 percent more energy has been put into the ethanol than can ever be extracted from it.

So what does the United States get out of its billion-dollar ethanol program?

It gets this: serious soil erosion, unrecoverable depletion of ground water, and higher prices for corn-fed livestock and poultry, though we should note that neither livestock nor poultry would naturally feed on corn -- but that's another story. It witnesses the destruction of unimaginably rich farmland by the cultivation of an unsustainable crop.

But the corn growers have friends in the Senate -- including Tom Daschle, the majority leader -- who beat back an attempt to limit the ethanol program as part of an overall energy bill. The Senate is now wrapping up the final touches on the bill, much of which is eminently sensible. As it now stands, the Senate version is far better than one passed earlier by the House of Representatives.

But we balk at ethanol. There's still time for Congress to come to its senses -- and strike a blow against the forces of King Corn.

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