TOM HORTON & DRK-The Tragic Story of Corn


Tom Horton’s excellent article which appeared in Chesapeake Bay Magazine in November of 2010 is the start of the corn story but the full story includes not only the loss of Chesapeake Bay, the loss of the Nations Health, but how our public health and safety is being corrupted on a massive scale.


It was a bitter pill to swallow last year when Jenny and I had to give up our four-stroke Honda outboard with less than 200 hours on it. The engines carburetor simply could not handle the gunk build–caused by ethanol– that is now legally required in all but a few Counties around the Bay.                                                             I was doubly griped because of the source of the ethanol, which is a far bigger problem than the ubiquitous gasoline additive itself. I speak of corn. It’s a pretty sight to see it growing across Chesapeake region farms and to watch each fall as combine’s shell it into mountains of grain. And corn based ethanol is certainly safer than what it replaced—MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a gas additive that is now banned as a suspected carcinogen.

But those who work with water quality around the Bay and coastal waters worldwide know the dark side of corn all too well. As we currently grow it corn is horribly polluting. To realize the high yielding potential of modern corn hybrids, growers must supply it with lots of nitrogen fertilizer. Even when farmers supply it with only what their crops needs, corn can only utilize about 37% of the applied nitrogen—even less in drought conditions. The rest ends up in ground water where substantial amounts eventually seep into the Chesapeake Bay.

In the Bay nitrogen grows excessive algae, which decompose and sucks life-giving oxygen from the water. The dead algae also cloud the water, shading out vital light from underwater grasses that provide habitat for a variety of aquatic life. The two million or so acres of corn grown across the Chesapeake’s six-state watershed are major reason agriculture remains the single largest source of water pollution for the Bay. The story’s the same for the Gulf of Mexico. Its oxygen deprived “dead zone” is the size of the State of New Jersey some years, courtesy of the nitrogen that washes down the Mississippi from the Midwest, which grows the bulk of the Nations 85 to 90 million acres of corn.

Soaring demand for corn to supply government subsidized ethanol plants a few years ago caused Bay region farmers to convert about 200,000 acres of land from mostly low polluting uses like hay and pasture, to additional corn acreage, adding millions of pounds of pollution to the Bay. While ethanol demand has since slumped and corn acreage decreased slightly, ethanol is here to stay, taking a quarter of the US corn crop, a force for keeping more land in corn.

You could have hardly concocted a worse response than corn based ethanol to start weaning the US from dependence on petroleum (ethanol is usually 10% of the fuel in your tank nowadays). Making the additive from corn is so energy intensive that we get at best, about 25% more energy from a gallon than the energy it takes to produce it. And a gallon of ethanol powers a car about two-thirds as far as a gallon of pure gasoline.

It is considerably more efficient to refine ethanol from sugar cane, which is grown across the southern U.S.; but for that crop the Federal subsidies favor sugar not ethanol, so cane growers are not inclined to get into the fuel business.

A byproduct of making corn ethanol called distillers grains is now being widely fed to dairy cattle in the Chesapeake region. This makes their manure already a pollution problem even more potent (higher in phosphorous which stimulates algal growth in the water)

We need to phase out subsidies for making ethanol from corn and step up research on how to make it from other less polluting plants like switchgrass. Even more important, we can start right now growing corn and other polluting crops like soybeans in less polluting ways. A proven solution is to follow the fall harvest with winter “cover crops”— grains like oats and rye grown solely to suck up excess nitrogen before it runs into the waterways. Maryland farmers with financial assistance from State taxpayers are putting large acreages into winter cover crops. Virginia and Pennsylvania are doing far less, as are Midwestern farm states.

Meanwhile, back on the boat, we’ve been doing ok with ethanol in our new outboard a Mercury direct injection two stroke. But don’t let anyone tell you that this is a good route to energy independence. Corn, The way we grow most of it now, only looks green.                      Tom Horton

Website manager Don Kerstetter picks up the story from here: I tried to find the current uses of field corn from USDA. They must know since they keep meticulous records on everything but they would not tell me. A paper on biofuels published by Great Lakes Bioenergy research Center in September 2010 stated that 80% of total corn production in the U.S. is used to feed animals and most of it goes to feed ruminants (cattle).

Scientists including pasture farmer Francis Thicke reporting in his excellent book “A New Vision for Iowa Agriculture”, generally believe that the U. S. has lost half its topsoil since Industrial Agriculture began following World War II. The USDA recommends a minimum 3-crop system for row crops plus annual winter cover crops. Grain farmers use 2 crop rotations at best and many use mono-cropping in the Midwest. The National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which is responsible for preserving the nations topsoil, allows grain farmers to take short cuts in soil management on a massive scale in the U.S. where bad soil management practices have been institutionalized by grain farmers while many in mainstream academia with knowledge of good soil management practice raise no objection.             The Thousands of Concentrated Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) facilities shown on our Factory Farm Map are conceptually incompatible with public safety and public health, and are contaminating aquifers with nitrate, soil and air with deadly antibiotic resistant pathogens and contaminating the food animals themselves with diseases.  Since The Johns Hopkins School of public health published the Pew Commission report on farm animals in 2008 they have been advocates for major changes most ignored by local State and Federal officials. They describe these facilities as perfect pathogen incubators. Please read their report (our reference #21). These facilities produce 3 times more manure all more dangerous because of antibiotic resistant pathogens than human manure without any treatment requirement.

When these facilities first started farmers were offered reasonable contracts. Now that farmers have mortgaged themselves to build the facilities the Integrators with little competition have reduced payments and forced upgrades leaving farmers stuck with bad economics which has adversly affected the economics of local communities. A glance at the National Factory Farm Map confirms that both dairy and beef cattle dominate land use but in some areas including areas of Iowa, North Carolina and Pennsylvania Hogs are dominant. But the environmental and economic destruction of rural communities is just the tip of the iceburg.                                       Studies published in 2010 by the World Cancer Research Fund and The American Institute for Cancer Research show that red meat (beef, pork, lamb, and goat) is a primary cause for increased cancer risk. Not only is it a convincing increased risk for colorectum cancer but suggestive for 6 other cancer types.                           Also in 2010 Harvard University published the first results of the Nurses Health Study involving 84,000 nurses, which began in1976. They also found that red meat was the major cause of Coronary Heart Disease. Harvard Universities’ Dr Walter Willett who was involved with both studies indicates that soon to be released studies on diabetes and stroke will show similar results. He also reports that other studies at Harvard show that adolescents and people in early adulthood are particularly vulnerable to red meat the dominant CAFO product. So we have an agriculture production system focused on meat and dairy which is taking shortcuts, causing the destruction of our most important natural resources, and also increasing the risk of our dominant diseases and escalating health care cost.

Does it make any sense to continue destroying our most important Natural Resources, and to systematically abuse our food animals (see our animal abuse post) to produce products that are this destructive? By directly subsidizing corn, by failure to enforce its own soil management guidelines, by failure to enforce current public safety laws and animal abuse laws  government at all levels is the great enabler of this flawed system                                                                                                              But there is reason for hope. Many people particularly young people are increasingly attracted to Vegan restaurants and vegan home cooking, not because of these issues but because the food is tastier, more satisfying, and exciting than animal based food. (see our post on Horizons restaurant in Philadelphia). There are two other advantages to eating a plant based diet:

1.The food is less expensive

2. It takes 14 times less land to eat the plant directly as opposed to having an animal eat the plant and then eating the animal. Our fast growing population will not have sufficient land to support this inefficient system.


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