Climate Change Hits the US's $82 Billion Corn Industry

Climate Change Hits the US's $82 Billion Corn Industry

Climate change impacts will wipe out corn production in the Midwest region’s Corn Belt by 2100 unless there are big leaps in technology, according to new research out of Emory University. In addition to being consumed by people, corn is also processed into animal feed and fuel, among other uses. While the study doesn’t take new technology into account, it’s clear that inaction is not a solution.

The region, which includes Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas, is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. In the US, crop production is very monocultural, meaning only one type of crop is grown in a given field. Eighty percent of the country’s agricultural lands produce just five crops, of which corn is one. Monocultural farming systems can increase efficiency for production, but leave soil deficient of nutrients and crops vulnerable to pests and mold.

Market to Market: New Study Finds Corn Ethanol's Environmental Impact Worse Than Gasoline, February 18, 2022.

TED: The history of the world according to corn | Chris A. Kniesly, November 26, 2019.

Why This Matters

The US is a major player in the agricultural commodity of corn, making up 30% of the world’s supply by exporting as much as 20% of its share to other countries. Farmers in the Corn Belt are currently experiencing warmer temperatures and less predictable precipitation. These climate changes are “expanding the reach of aflatoxin, a chemical produced by a gray-green mold that infects corn crops and could threaten widespread damage to the country’s lucrative Corn Belt,” Grist reports.

With the US agricultural sector being responsible for about 11% of its greenhouse gas emissions, the study supports the need to redesign the nation’s agriculture to be more diversified and less resource-intensive.

“One of the basic laws of ecology is that more diverse ecosystems are more resilient," said Emily Burchfield, study author and assistant professor at Emory. “A landscape covered with a single plant is a fragile, brittle landscape. And there is also growing evidence that more diverse agricultural landscapes are more productive."

Space Sci Network: Climate Change Could Affect maize or corn and the Global Agriculture Within 10 Years, November 2, 2021.

Video From Space: Climate change could reduce corn and increase wheat yields relatively soon, NASA explains, November 1, 2021.

Agriculture as a Climate Change Solution

Nearly two-thirds of the US is agricultural land, so changing how it’s used has enormous potential to reduce emissions and absorb carbon.

According to a recent report by MIT, reduced tillage is one solution. This would keep carbon in the soil by not turning it over so much. Another solution is cover cropping, which is not planting for harvest but to improve soil quality, decrease erosion, and capture carbon. And the report’s third recommendation is rotational grazing, which means moving cows (or other livestock) to different areas for grazing. This would reduce the need for livestock feed and provide natural fertilizer -- a two for two when it comes to reducing emissions.

Sentient Media: Food System Emissions - How Can We Reduce Our Carbon Footprint?, June 18, 2021.

Tom's Outdoors: Changing Paradigms | Regenerative Agriculture: a Solution to our Global Crisis? | Full Documentary, May 10, 2021.

CBC: How a different approach to farming is helping fight climate change, April 27, 2021.

Now This: How Animal Agriculture Contributes to Climate Change, October 22, 2021.