On Warming Planet, US Corn Industry 'Unsustainable'

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Common Dreams

On Warming Planet, US Corn Industry 'Unsustainable'

New report shows use of water and chemical fertilizers is serious threat to nation's signature crop

(Photo: Vmcreddy / Wikimedia Creative Commons)

America's behemoth corn industry—worth an estimated $67 billion—is racing towards an unsustainable future as the planet warms, severe weather intensifies, and irrigation water dries up, according to a new report by the investment research organization Ceres.

The report, entitled Water and Climate Risks Facing Corn Production in the U.S., has potentially far-reaching implications, given the mono-crop status of U.S. corn—which is grown on nearly one third of all U.S. farmland, accounts for 40% corn crops across the world, and is found in products ranging from animal feed to corn syrup.

Corn is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events—including floods, droughts, and heat waves, which are only going to intensify as climate change worsens. The National Climate Assessment warned in May that global warming will negatively impact agricultural production in the Midwest and Great Plains—a prediction that does not bode well for corn, which is grown throughout these regions.

Furthermore, corn is remarkably water-intensive, receiving "the most irrigation water overall of any American crop," the report states. Global warming is worsening water shortages, and corn production is growing increasingly reliant on over-stressed aquifers, including the Central Valley aquifer in California and the High Plains aquifer that stretches from South Dakota to Texas. A stunning "87 percent of irrigated corn is grown in regions with high or extremely high water stress," the report reveals, with corn-growing areas in Nebraska, Kansas, California, Colorado, and Texas at especially high risk.

Corn growers, furthermore, uses "the most fertilizer of all major U.S. crops" and "every year millions of tons of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer leach into groundwater and run off cornfields into waterways," the report states. This run-off is the single biggest contributor to the nitrogen pollution that has created a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where no marine life can survive.

“Escalating corn production for our food, livestock and energy industries has put the corn sector on an unsustainable path, especially in regard to water quality and water use impacts and the growing ripples from climate change,” warned Brooke Barton, the report's author and director of Ceres' water program, in a statement.

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