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Corn, Famine, Ethanol
December 24, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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Slow Motion Apocalypse Famine May Be Delayed

One of the things I do is try to predict the future. While others worry about the Matrix and metaverse, I see those as just energy-consuming black holes. I worry about food, agriculture, fertilizer, supply chains, global warming, and their relationship to the earth's ecosystem dying in the Slow Motion Apocalypse. The other day I stumbled upon a graph about corn consumption in the United States, and I was startled and wondered how I had missed such an important piece of data.

There is a presumption now that the return of the human population to a long-term sustainable number will occur as a consequence of the effects of global warming. Scientists and others can argue about the size of a long-term sustainable human population, but those who, like me, want a healthy natural world tend to use the 1800, beginning of the industrial revolution, number of 1 billion. Industrialists like higher populations and so argue for numbers supportable by intensified industrial agriculture as developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

While war and disease might lead to lower population figures, and a one child policy could get us to sustainability in 4 generations, most bets are on famine to check the human population. Global warming in itself is not likely to kill many people. But if it causes crops to fail, then good old Malthus rules are back on the table. Global warming is likely to cause crops to fail, in fact appears to already to be causing crop failures beyond the normal historical background fluctuations. Most nations have had local famines due to bad weather or social disruptions or war at some time in their history. Americans get used to hearing about famines in other nations like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, and think the only problem is moving food around and distributing it. We forget that, until a few decades ago, famine was a regular occurrence in China (from imperial times through Chiang Kai Shek's reign and during the early Communist years) and most of the world.

There is no way to predict in what year there will be a global famine. Most of the industrialized nations do not grow enough food to feed themselves, and so depend on imports. America, for much of its history, was an exception. We still export substantial quantities of food despite our industrial economy. We import a lot of food too. If we have a particularly bad year for food production in the U.S., we will just import food, provided the rest of the globe has food it is willing to sell us. There is the rub. Food supplies globally have been tight for years now. For example wheat is in short supply, which has caused its price to go noticeably higher than normal:

5 year wheat prices
Source: Trading Economics

There are several scenarios for large-scale crop failures in the U.S. The most likely cause is drought. Extreme temperature variations, both heat and cold, can cause wide-scale crop failure. Storms of sufficient magnitude could cause crop failure, but they seldom cover enough area to cause a famine. Lack of fertilizer or fuel for farm machinery could initiate a famine. And then there is social disruption, which comes in many forms. Finally, there is human disease. If too many farmers or farm workers are dead, the crops will fail or fail to be harvested.

Now let us talk corn (maize), aka Zea mays. Americans don't eat much corn in their modern diet. The occasional ear of sweet corn, or corn kernels as a vegetable, or popped corn, or corn tortilla, is typically the limit for modern Americans. We used to eat a lot more corn: grits, corn pone, corn bread. In the old South it was the staple food. We ate it because it was the easiest high-calorie crop to grow. Ground corn, cooked however, kept millions of Americans alive until roughly World War II. Corn was also used to feed hogs and chickens, and more recently became a major ingredient in cow feed mixes. So in the 20th century America's corn crop switched from being used directly as food for Homo sapiens to being food for our food animals. Along the way varieties of corn were developed that did not taste good as corn on the cob and did not make good corn meal, but stored well and were fine for animal food. At least, the animals were in no position to protest.

What would happen if the corn crop failed in 2022? By failure, lets speculate that about one-half of the normal end product, kernels of corn, gets produced. The crop ripens in autumn, and by then typically the previous year's crop is mostly used up or exported. I always assumed meat prices would soar, but no one would actually starve. We would eat less meat. We would still have wheat and potatoes for calories.

What I did not realize, until recently, was just how much of the corn crop goes to ethanol. According the USDA, about 35% of the 2021 crop will be used to create ethanol (to add to gas for cars). After ethanol production some of the remaining byproduct is available for other uses, including animal feed. Most of the rest for the crop perhaps 64%, will go to feed animals. [See types of corn] There are strains preferred to create ethanol, but to some extent ethanol corn and feed corn are interchangeable.

So if all ethanol production is stopped, a 50% crop failure would result only in a 15% (of overall production) shortage in feed corn. The price of pork chops, chickens and eggs would go up, but famine is unlikely.

To some extent humans might be able to eat field corn, ground up and mixed with something to make it more palatable. That would be a worst-case scenario, if wheat or potatoe crops failed.

So the good news, famine is less likely than I thought.

The bad news is, famine is less likely to curb the human population. So the earth's ecosystems will continue to be depleted. So when the collapse comes, it will be deeper and longer.

A reasonable public policy would be for the U.S. government to start building up a supply of food. The traditional goal is seven years worth of food to get a population thought a long famine. Don't expect that to happen. The U.S. government is where good ideas go to die.

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