Corn for the table, or tank
It’s almost time to plant the corn — and I’m talking about corn in our own gardens, grown for food, not fuel.
But the use of corn for ethanol has changed our food supply, and is changing how people eat and how much. And it’s affecting food prices.
It stands to reason. If fertile agricultural land is being used to grow corn for ethanol, it’s taking land out of food production. Subsidies for ethanol keep corn prices high, which also makes animal feed expensive, which makes meat expensive.
Of course, there are a lot of things affecting food prices. The World Bank reported late last month that rising fuel costs, bad weather in Europe and the United States, and increasing demand in Asia combined to push food prices up 8 percent worldwide between December and March. Because our food supply is no longer local, problems far from home — tsunamis in Japan, droughts in Australia — affect both prices and supply in our local stores.
The globalization of our food supply is not all bad, of course. It keeps us in oranges and coffee, and gives us cheap rice and cinnamon.
But it also means we’re affected by weather, disasters and politics not only at home, but far, far away. And other people, far away, are affected by our food policies.
Moving corn production from food to biofuels, for instance, has made it harder for people in the developing world to get enough to eat. A report last year by the anti-poverty nonprofit Oxfam found that rising food prices drove an additional 44 million people worldwide into poverty in 2011.
Here at home, food prices rose 5 percent last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the USDA predicts that prices will continue to rise this year, although at a slightly lower rate.
But with wages lagging behind inflation, and so many still unemployed or underemployed, any rise in food prices is a concern.
One way to keep our own prices down is to grow more of our own food, or to support the local farmers who do.
Which brings us back to corn-planting time. For my own gardens, May 15 is generally the right time to plant corn, but it’s been a warm spring. The old tales say you should plant corn when the oak leaves are as big as squirrel ears. Oak trees leaf out later than other trees, maples for instance, and generally not until soil temperatures reach about 55 degrees — corn-planting time.
We’ll start planting corn this week, and we grow sweet corn for ourselves and multicolored field corn as well. We grind the field corn for corn flour and corn meal for baking, and feed some to the chickens. It helps offset some of the cost of feeding our family.
The U.S. grew about 12 billion bushels of corn last year. The bulk of that was used for animal feed and for fuel, around 5 billion bushels for each. (Last year, for the first time, slightly more of our corn was used for ethanol than for feed.)
Only about 20 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for human food — in corn products like chips and tacos, and as corn syrup, both high-fructose and the simple kind. The sweet corn you like to eat on the cob in the summer accounts for only about 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States.
As of last week, more than half of this year’s total corn crop had been planted, according to the USDA. Our local farms are planting corn right now, most of it to feed our local cows, but plenty for our local bellies as well.
I wish we could grow all of our own food, for us and our animals, our friends and family, and some extra for those near and far without enough. But as long as I’m dependent on my morning cup of coffee, and willing to put subtropical fruit in my kids’ lunch boxes, I can’t kid myself.
I have a garden, sure. But I’m still part of the global supply and demand that drives food and fuel prices. And my car, like yours, continues to drink up its 10 percent of corn in every gallon of gas it uses.
At least a little of the corn I use comes from my own little piece of the world. Maybe we can grow a little more this year, and avoid a little more shopping, a little more driving, a little more trucking food from far away. And keep a little less corn out of the gas tank.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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