Corn is Corny. By
In 2008 gas prices in the United States jumped up over $4 per gallon. People across the country proceeded to lose their collective minds. The President said that it was a “national crisis” and something needed to be done. There were calls for more drilling, tighter fuel economy standards, alternative fuels, and legislative action. Talking heads on both sides of the aisle debated the pros and cons of getting the government involved and nobody could decide if the President, Congress, or even any of us could do anything about it.
So what, you ask, does this have to do with a restaurant? Well, what if we were talking about the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread? What sort of crisis would a $6 gallon of milk cause? Strap in friends and doomsday preppers, because it’s coming.
You may have heard that we’re experiencing a drought. Areas of the country that are experiencing “extreme or exceptional drought” account for almost 25% of our land. That’s one in four acres. And our major crop in the United States is corn. We, in fact, produce almost half of all the corn grown in the world. And we use that corn for a variety of things: high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, ethanol, and food. Food, by the way, is at the bottom of the pile. For every ten ears of corn grown, two go into our bellies. This includes the corn used for corn syrup and other food additives. A big chunk of it goes to animal feed, and a big chunk goes to ethanol. (See how we did that? We tied it back to gas prices. Neat, huh?)
From August of 2011 until August of 2012, we as a nation, for the first time in our history, we used more corn for cars than for animal feed. We don’t know if that’s good or bad, as ethanol is better than carbon-based fuels and cows aren’t really supposed to eat corn, but there it is. And it is about 40% of our corn crop. The thing is, we (and by “we” we mean stupid people in Washington) mandated that about 9% of our fuel be ethanol. We pay our farmers a subsidy to grow corn for gas. Then we tax the bejesus out of imported ethanol from things like sugar cane (cheaper, easier to grow) to make things a little nicer for the American Farmer. The farmers would argue that waste from ethanol production goes towards animal feed, so food, right? Not buying it.
And now America’s Breadbasket fills 400 horses of pure Detroit muscle instead of you.
Because of our drought, our corn crop has gone to pot. You can, it seems, use hemp oil as a biofuel, but Americans prefer corn. But let’s not get sidetracked.
The American farmer has drastically changed the way that he grows food. You have a hard time growing oranges in Chicago, so we didn’t really try. When your crop got a case of pests, you rotated that crop out for a few years, starving the larvae and giving the land a rest. We’ve now created modified breeds of animals and plants that are “drought/pest/infection-resistant” and we can fill sweeping fields with identical plants and creatures. A great deal of the corn that we’re currently growing is Monsanto drought-resistant and is now being gnawed at by rootworms, which the seeds have been carefully engineered to repel. Oh the irony.
Because of this crop crisis, the government is stepping in to buy pigs, chickens, and other animals that rely on corn for feed, relieving some of the stress to the farmers, and adding some food to food banks and schools. Great move. Ranchers are also sending more cattle to slaughter so that they won’t have to feed them. This will lead to some lower beef prices. Great if you’re a carnivore. But these gains will be short-lived.
Our reliance on two items – corn and the internal combustion engine – is going to lead us to start making some choices. Do you want to drive to the mall or drink a soda? This is going to impact the price of bread, milk, beverages, and a gallon of gas. We’ve inadvertently put all of our kernels in one pot.
And now they’re going to pop. Strap in, friends. And fill up your root cellar. It’s going to get bumpy.