The worldwide crisis over food prices is the direct result of the decision, made by the Bush administration in 2006, to begin feeding large quantities of American corn to American automobiles, in the form of ethanol. This fateful decision led to a run-up in corn prices, which in turn led farmers to plant more corn and less soy and wheat–leading to the surge in the price for all grains. But make no mistake: we’ve created a situation where American SUVs are competing with African eaters for grain. We can see who is winning.
Descendants of the Maya living in Mexico still sometimes refer to themselves as “the corn people.” The phrase is not intended as metaphor. Rather, it’s meant to acknowledge their abiding dependence on this miraculous grass, the staple of their diet for almost 9,000 years.
I’ve been traveling in the American Corn Belt this past week, and wherever I go, people are talking about the promise of ethanol. Corn-distillation plants are popping up across the country like dandelions, and local ethanol boosters in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and even Washington State (where Bill Gates is jumping into the business) are giddy at the prospect of supplanting OPEC with a homegrown, America-first corn cartel.
Americans have been talking a lot about trade this campaign season, about globalism’s winners and losers, and especially about the export of American jobs. Yet even when globalism is working the way it’s supposed to—when Americans are exporting things like crops rather than jobs—there can be a steep social and environmental cost.
Here in southern New England the corn is already waist high and growing so avidly you can almost hear the creak of stalk and leaf as the plants stretch toward the sun. The ears of sweet corn are just starting to show up on local farm stands, inaugurating one of the ceremonies of an American summer. These days the nation’s nearly 80 million-acre field of corn rolls across the countryside like a second great lawn, but this wholesome, all-American image obscures a decidedly more dubious reality.
Garden City, Kan., missed out on the suburban building boom of the postwar years. What it got instead were sprawling subdivisions of cattle. These feedlots—the nation’s first—began rising on the high plains of western Kansas in the 50’s, and by now developments catering to cows are far more common here than developments catering to people.
THIS IS THE SEASON OF THE garden seed, that time of pure promise when the entire contents of a quarter-acre patch of vegetables—the yield of which will burden a small truck come August—can still fit inside an envelope and be sent cross-country by Fed Ex. The seeds themselves betray no sign of the prodigies they