By Tom Philpott
Wed Apr. 25, 2012
Corn is by far the biggest US crop, and a network of corporations has sprouted up that profits handsomely from it. Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta sell the seeds and chemicals used to grow it, while Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and their peers buy the finished crop and transform it into meat, ethanol, sweetener, and a range of food ingredients. Known in Washington as King Corn, the corn lobby wields formidable power in political circles.
And the economic pie these companies gorge on is massive. Pesticide Action Network’s Heather Pilatic has an great post about how integrated-pest management in US corn fields collapsed with the introduction of Monsanto’s seeds engineered to contain the pesticide Bt and with the rise of Bayer’s neonicotinoid-pesticide seed treatments—representing billions in annual sales to those companies. On the corn-processing side, government mandates ensure that a huge portion of the corn crop—currently, 40 percent—gets diverted into the fuel supply in the form of ethanol, a huge boon to ethanol giant Archer Daniels Midland.
Yet King Corn sits on a rickety throne. That’s the message of a new study (abstract here) by Stanford and Purdue researchers on how the nation’s vast annual corn crop will likely fare as the climate warms up over the next 30 years. Short answer: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The researchers looked at what would likely happen to corm production if average temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels over the next 30 years—the target limit accepted by nations participating in global climate talks. (This is actually a rosy scenario, because at current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions, the temperature rise could be quite a bit higher.)
What they find is that the area known as the “corn belt”—the upper Midwestern states where most corn is grown—will likely experience periods of extreme heat that will drive down corn production during some years, leading to a series of price spikes. “Severe heat is the big hammer,” one of the study’s authors, Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh says in Stanford’s press release. “Even one or two degrees of global warming is likely to substantially increase heat waves that lead to low-yield years and more price volatility.”