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  • Robert Turner

40% of the U.S. Corn Crop goes into our Gas Tanks.

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

What happens when cars go electric? Will all that excess corn cause havoc in an already struggling ag sector?

Electric Vehicles May Drive Corn Farmers Out of Business

Can a corn farmer learn something from a tobacco farmer?

By Robert Turner

General Motor’s recent announcement that it will sell only electric vehicles by 2035, which came on the heels of President Biden’s executive order to transition federal vehicles to electric, foreshadows considerable disruption ahead for farmers in the Corn Belt.

Forty percent (40%) of the US corn crop goes into our gas tanks—in the form of ethanol. By federal mandate gasoline must contain 10% ethanol, and that comes from corn. Electric vehicles represent a significant drop in demand for corn, and that could cripple an already hurting agriculture sector.

We’ve seen that kind of mass disruption in agriculture right here in Western North Carolina, where I live and farm, with the demise of tobacco. Perhaps an Appalachian tobacco farmer has something to teach to a Midwestern corn farmer. Disruption can become an important opportunity to retool agriculture toward a more sustainable system that can improve soil health and mitigate climate change.

A Sea of Corn

To get an idea on the scale of things, you must drive through it. Plan on spending a couple days in the corn at 70 miles per hour.

Crossing the Midwest, you drive through a sea of corn that stretches for a thousand miles. It’s bigger than a sea; bigger than the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It’s nearly one and a half times the size of California, and it’s more than two and a half times the size of all the Great Lakes, combined.

The corn belt is roughly 1000 miles wide, from Pittsburgh to Grand Island, Nebraska. North to South it reaches from Minneapolis down to St. Louis, about 500 miles. Its total estimated area is 250,000 square miles of corn. It’s a massive thing.

Over 300,000 corn farmers produce roughly 350 million tons of corn every year, roughly one ton per person living in the United States, or 2000 pounds per person. The average person only eats about 1% of that, or 20 pounds, and a lot of that in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Most of the rest goes into our gas tanks and into cows and chickens. Roughly 36% of the U.S. corn crop goes toward livestock feed.

No one really knows what will happen to such a vast area of farmland when electric vehicles finally take over, but not many industries can handle a 40% drop in demand without turmoil. Should we continue to prop up the corn industry with taxpayer subsidies as it begins to fail?

Perhaps large chunks of the Midwest will turn back into prairie grasslands, like before we started tilling it under for corn, while rural America sinks further into decline. Perhaps we’ll find another use for corn in the form of biofuels for trucks and airplanes. Maybe someday a big chunk of that farmland will be covered in wind turbines and solar panels.

Is Increasing Exports the Solution for all that Corn?

To save the Midwestern corn belt, some have suggested that we increase exports of corn, but many others argue that might not be a great idea for a couple of reasons.

We currently export about 13% of the US corn crop. And yes, we can and should help to feed the world. But all countries, like many in Africa, need to increase their own agricultural output and infrastructure through better seeds and sustainable, regenerative technology. All countries need to work toward feeding themselves as a matter of food sovereignty and national security. And many countries are on their way toward doing that—yields in many developing nations are increasing.

If we dump cheap, taxpayer subsidized corn on these developing countries, like we’ve been doing to Mexico, it harms their farmers and hinders their ability to grow their markets and production capacity at home. And we’re damaging our own natural ecosystems and environment in the process.

A Better Way

Much of the fertilizer that we use to grow all this corn, along with chemical pesticides and herbicides, and vast amounts of soil from over tilling, washes into the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems. The massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the clearest example of this.

Weeds and pests are developing resistance to glyphosate and other chemicals. New “superweeds” are showing signs of cracks in the system. American farmers must transition away from the current monocropping system and become diverse growers again, with varied crops and animals in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly system.

Any new agricultural system that we support with taxpayer subsidies should include crop rotation, no-till and limited till planting, and other regenerative and sustainable farming practices that improve soil health. We must focus on increasing living microorganisms and organic matter which reduces the need for chemicals and increases the soils water holding capacity—making farmland much more resilient to floods, droughts, and climate change.

Lessons from the Fall of Tobacco

In the mountains of Western North Carolina, where I farm, the mid-1990s marked the beginning of the end for tobacco here. After more than 70 years as the dominant cash crop for farmers, in what was known as the “burley belt”, production of burley tobacco entered a period of sharp decline.

The drop in demand was devastating to farmers in the region. From 1997 to 2012, the number of burley belt tobacco farms declined by 97%. Tobacco acreage saw a 95% decline. Revenue decreased by 96%. This is what market disruption looks like when you’re dependent on a single crop.

Anticipating the impact that the loss of tobacco could have on the region, a group of farmers and community stakeholders met in 1995 to look for solutions to the challenges facing farmers.

What came out of it was the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). ASAP launched a local food campaign in 2000 to build a market alternative for farmers. They focused on connecting people to farms and food, and they began building consumer demand for locally and regionally grown farm products. Thank you, ASAP.

The result was that over a 15-year period agriculture shifted from monocropping tobacco to fruits, vegetables, grass fed beef and free-range chicken eggs. Much of that food was grown using organic and regenerative practices that improved soil health and biodiversity, and it was driven by consumer demand for healthier food without all the chemicals.

From 2002 to 2012, the former burley-dependent counties saw a 98% increase in the number of farms growing vegetables, melons, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.

And while the size and scale of the problem facing the Midwest is significantly greater, including new markets, labor, food storage, and transportation networks, with enough time solutions can be found.

The Corn Belt solution can and should benefit the health and biodiversity of the environment as much as the farmer. Regenerative agriculture may be the most cost-effective tool that we have to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and with better land management, the corn belt could become a giant carbon sink while providing a broader range of food products.

Disruption, like electric vehicles or the fall of tobacco, can bring positive change.

Story Update:

November 15, 2021

A company called Navigator Heartland, LLC. is sending letters to thousands of farmers in Iowa and across other midwestern states telling them that it plans to build a “carbon capture” pipeline across their land and that will run for 1300 miles.

The pipeline, which the company calls the Heartland Greenway Project, will transport carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions captured at ethanol / biofuels refineries in the region to an underground storage facility located in Central Illinois for long term storage.

In total, says the company, the project will be capable of capturing and storing up to 15 million metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to capturing the emissions of 3.2 million vehicles annually. Another company involved in a similar project in the upper Midwest, Summit Carbon Solutions, plans on spending about $4.5 billion dollars on their pipeline project to transport CO2 to another storage facility in South Dakota.

These projects entail not only disrupting farming operations during the dig while the pipeline is installed, but includes putting farmers into an understandable tizzy about their land and their rights to say no, and the company’s ability to commandeer eminent domain over their land.

The companies say they are going after “the low hanging fruit”, the CO2 emissions that are most easily captured at ethanol plants, where CO2 is emitted when plant material ferments in the process, before they move on to emissions at other facilities such as power plants (where it is much more difficult to capture the carbon dioxide and the technology is not fully developed yet.)

But the question remains, why would anyone invest in a dying, if not drastically shrinking industry such as ethanol—for reasons noted above? Electric vehicles will kill the demand for ethanol, so why invest in it?

Further to that, 500 environmental organizations recently wrote an open letter to President Biden denouncing any carbon capture and storage plan as a climate solution. “We don’t need to fix fossil fuels; we need to ditch them,” the group wrote in a Washington Post ad. “Instead of capturing carbon to pump it back underground, we should keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place.”

Ethanol facilities, and the laws requiring 10% ethanol be added to gasoline, were developed in the 1980’s and 90’s as a way to use up the millions of tons of excess corn that US farmers were producing. And this huge glut of corn was the result of USDA policy dating back to the 60’s and 70’s telling farmers to “get big or get out” and to grow corn “fencerow to fencerow”. This of course was supported by the big ag corporations who were selling all the inputs, like seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.

It's just not a smart investment. Even if we find other uses for biofuels, they still release carbon into the atmosphere when they’re burned, and we’ll never make up for the loss of demand created by electric vehicles.

The fifteen million tons of carbon that the Heartland project is promising to capture is nothing compared to the carbon that can be sequestered by simply convincing farmers to use regenerative agriculture practices, including no-till and cover crops. Most corn and soybean farmers in the US are already using no-till (60%), but sadly, very few, less than 6% of US farmers, are using cover crops.

One acre of cropland can sequester over one ton of carbon every year using regenerative agriculture. As noted in the story above, the corn belt encompasses over 250,000 square miles, or 160 million acres. That would equate to over 160 million tons of carbon captured and stored in the soil every year, which also helps to build up healthier soils. And some studies have shown that healthy soil can store even more than that, up to four tons of carbon per acre.

Wouldn’t it be wiser to just spend that $4 billion on cover crop seed and give it to farmers? It just so happens that cover crop seed costs about $25 per acre, and if you multiply that by 160 million acres of farmland in the Midwest, the bill comes to the same $4 billion. And interestingly, we could sequester ten times the carbon right on the farm without the need of a pipeline. That’s a smarter investment.

So why are these companies building the pipelines? Because there's money to be made in carbon credits. The biofuel companies can meet their commitments to a carbon neutral future, and sell any excess carbon credits for the carbon they capture and store. The federal government just announced a $50 dollar per ton tax credit on carbon sequestration. Why not just pay the farmer to do the right thing and plant cover crops, and forget the pipeline. At least then there wouldn't be thousands of angry farmers showing up at town meetings complaining about some corporation tearing through his growing fields under the banner of 'eminent domain'.

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