America's Reliance on Corn
What's Your Favorite Grain?
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The United States of America has a certain bond with corn. In elementary school, I was taught the story of how the Native American man, Squanto told settlers how to grow corn by fertilizing the harsh New England soil with fish. One of the most popular patriotic songs describes the amber waves of grain of our country's MidWest. That one country singer Luke Bryant apparently loves corn. Corn is ingrained in our national identity.
Corn is one of the only grains local to North America and was first cultivated nearly 9000 years ago. Since then it has been a staple in America food ever since. Think about it, corn dogs, corn bread, popcorn and corn on the cob are all symbols of true American food. And even if you don't eat something with the world corn in its name, chances are, you will consume something with corn in it today.
With all that said, let's take a look at the all-American crop and its current implications with America.
Vitamin A 4%
Vitamin C 9%
Corn is a highly versatile crop, it can be made into any number of things, like oil, ethanol, syrup, meal or a nice corn dog. Here I'm going to look at corn itself.
In terms of nutrition, corn is nothing special. Looking at the chart on the right, corn is pretty standard in terms of nutrition. Most of its energy comes from carbs, which is to be expected from a grain.
There were approximately 13.6 billion bushels (about 55 pounds) harvested in 2015, using about 80.7 million acres, which is about the area of New Mexico, making corn one of the most efficient crops in terms of bushels per acre. Corn is one of the most important exports in America, with the US exporting 19 billion dollars of it per year.
In the US, corn is a staple food used in corn meal and just whole corn and US demand is met by US supply. Corn, along with other staple cereals, is the energy powering America, supplying an average American's carbohydrates for the day. The average American eats about 56 pounds of corn per year, and if corn is the energy that keeps America going, then corn syrup is the sugary lifeblood that runs through our veins since the average American consumes 42 pounds of corn syrup per year. Although many critics will criticize high fructose corn syrup's role in American obesity, the real evidence is inconclusive and the truth is that all sugars can lead to obesity and diabetes.
Other countries, however, depend on the US for their corn supply. Japan is America's 4th largest export market, and corn was the second largest category of sale, totalling 1.8 billion dollars in 2013.
The United States is able to produce so much corn because the government has pretty much marked it the staple crop of the country. The US government spends over 30 billion dollars in farm subsidies, with much of it going towards corn production. Although the exact amount of money going towards each specific crop hasn't been released lately, judging by statistics taken in 2005, that number could easily be 15 billion.
The subsidies on corn may seem exuberantly high, but with good reason. Without the subsidies, corn and other basic foods would be much more expensively priced. (although the question of subsidies is more of a more question due to increased food prices disproportionally affecting the poor)
As you can see, the United States is very heavily dependent and invested into the industry of corn, given the huge subsidies, trade agreements, crop yields and the average American's diet.
As stated in the previous segment America and its people are very dependent on corn as food, a cash crop and for maintaining international relations. But corn isn't just used for whiskey and corn dogs, corn can be turned into ethanol to produce alternative energy.
One bushel of corn can be used to create 16.5 pounds of consumable food, half a pound of corn oil or about 2.8 gallons of ethanol. Ethanol's energy density is very low, comparable to coal in both energy density and specific energy. Doing some simple mathematics, a bushel of corn turned into ethanol can produce about 70 KWh of energy, a little more than what's needed to charge a Tesla to full. Given a bushel of corn is about 3.90¢, it may seem like a good deal given the average cost of a KWh of energy is 12¢ (which means the same 70 KWh would cost about 8.50)
Given a bushel of corn is about 3.90¢, it may seem like a good deal given the average cost of a KWh of energy is 12¢ (which means the same 70 KWh would cost about 8.50) The problem is, extensive technology is needed to convert corn to ethanol, and in the real market, the cost for the same amount of energy in ethanol and oil is about the same.
One advantage ethanol has over traditional fossil fuels, however, is that it is made from corn, so it can be renewed as long as corn production stays alive. Keep in mind that renewable does not mean clean, since exhausting ethanol still pollutes the air.
All this said the US government has also heavily encouraged the production of ethanol, spending at least 200 million dollars in tax incentives and direct subsidies to boost production. The Renewable Fuel Standard helped incentivize farmers to produce more ethanol instead of food. Due to this, ethanol production has octupled from 2000-2010 and ethanol is now 94% of US biofuel, and a third of all bushels of corn get turned into ethanol.
The results of the ethanol industry are quite impressive. In 2014, ethanol production supplied direct jobs to 84 thousand Americans and an additional 300 thousand indirect jobs (transport, logistics etc.) creating 27 billion in household income (making average income for the sector about 70k), $53 billion in GDP and 10.3 billion in tax revenue. With all of this helping decrease petroleum import dependence by 32% (7% decrease from ethanol alone) while ethanol mixing in gasoline saves the consumer 50¢ on the gallon at the pump.
In Conclusion, corn is a very important crop in America not just for food and trade, but for renewable energy, energy independence and national identity. It is truly the All-American crop.
© 2016 Michael Tu