The drought that has been parching the American midwest has brought growers to their knees. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has officially stated that half of the nation's corn crop is in poor or very poor condition. The cable news reports, with their panning scenes of acre upon acre of dead corn, are even worse. It looks like the setting of a post-apocalypse movie, not the breadbasket of a nation created by farmers. The few corn crops that are actually surviving are so rare that on Monday, prices sky rocketed to an all-time high of $8.20 a bushel, and counting.
There's a US government mandate that our unleaded fuel going into vehicles has to be approximately 13% ethanol. Regardless of supply, that currently remains the law. Which means if you are feeding hogs or steers, you'd better start stepping up to the bidding war for what remains – because the factories turning that same field corn into ethanol are not only buying it up, they are legally required to do so. And now a country lousy with corn is debating where to direct this year's humble harvest: should the corn go into the SUV, or the burgers its passengers are waiting for?
Livestock farmers and ranchers are fervently urging President Obama to stop allowing what little corn there is this season to be diverted into ethanol. I could not agree with them more. Not because I am worried about the availability or even the price of food, but because I find it inherently immoral to be turning edible calories poor people can't afford into energy calories the wealthy can use to drive to the movies. Cars shouldn't be eating better than your neighbours.
It's easy to get jaded when it comes to talking about food and farming in America. Corn and soy are the staples of modern conventional agriculture. They are a part of nearly every processed food (or the food's packaging) in our fluorescent-lit aisles. But since corn is the ghostwriter behind the novel, prices will soar in places the public may not expect. Meat and milk, for example. If you are wondering why animals that eat grass are jumping up in price, you probably aren't aware of how much corn is in your coffee creamer. A lot.
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At its heart and on paper, ethanol isn't a horrible idea. But we all know that cheap oil is a thing of the past. There's no doubt that alternative fuels should be utilised – but using food for fuel is an impossible idea for a sustainable future. It's the acme of decadence and arrogance to think you can use the same crop that runs the food economy to run the motorised one as well.
There is a silver lining: the chance for your local, sustainable farmers to step up to the plate and finally have a chance to compete with King Corn. If factory-farmed meat and dairy become significantly more expensive, farmers working with rotational grazing and other non-commercial methods of production might not only have the greener alternative, but the cheaper one. After all, a farm 30 minutes outside your city only has to deliver a handful of miles and used little inputs, if any, in their product. Will people start reaching out to sustainable farms as a financial choice instead of a value-based choice? I think they will. And when they taste their first bite of hand-kneaded hamburger on the grill, they may never go back. For the sake of our societal sanity – and for the animals whose welfare is far better on pasture than in a feedlot – I hope so.
Perhaps the law will change, or even be revoked if the outcry is loud enough. If not, expect higher prices and a lot more veg stir fry than stroganoff. Perhaps then people will understand what the sustainable part in "sustainable farming" actually means. In the meantime, fill the ice box with T-bones and pray for rain.