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The United States is the largest producer of corn in the world. Close behind corn, soybeans and wheat toe the line for the most popular crops in the country. Referred to by the United States Department of Agriculture as “commodity crops,” the bulk of American agricultural land has been designated to grow these crops.

There is no denying the dominance of these crops in the United States. It is estimated that corn covers 80 million acres of farmland, soybeans cover over 70 million acres and  wheat is designated 45 million acres. In comparison to these giants, the next largest crop produced in the U.S., cotton, only covers 9.5 million acres.

As Michael Pollan says, “If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of American’s do, what you are is corn.”  And if you aren’t corn, then you must be soy or wheat…

The trends shown in U.S. agriculture are reflective of growing agricultural trends across the globe. According to the Earth Observatory, over 819 million tons of corn were produced around the world in 2010 and over 60 percent of the world’s energy intake is met by corn, wheat and rice.

But while the majority of the foods we consume are variant forms of wheat, soybeans, or corn, it doesn’t seem to appear that people are responsible for eating these HUGE stores of grains.

In fact, despite the abundance of these crops grown at a global scale, one in eight people suffer from chronic undernourishment. The world does produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet at least 2,720 kilocalories per day, so where does the discrepancy between the amount of crops produced and the number of people fed begin?

Of course, there is disproportionate distribution of food among the world’s wealthy nations. But there is a growing problem with the world’s agricultural system that is much simpler than that: most of the world’s crops aren’t grown to feed people.

Corn, wheat, and soybeans grown around the world seldom reach the mouths of the world’s hungry people. In fact only about 20 percent of the corn grown in the United States is used to feed people. Argentina is the largest producer of soybeans in the world, but nearly 97 percent of soymeal exported by Argentina is not sent to feed the world’s people. Only about six percent of the world’s soybeans are directly used to feed humans.

So, what is happening to the world’s grains? How can such high-volume production of these crops yield so little nutrition for the world’s people?

Where is does all the grain go?

Livestock. Plain and simple. The majority of the world’s grains are processed and turned into animal feed. It’s ironic how the world’s appetite for meat is causing global food shortages, huh?

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. The incredible backward-ness of our industrial food complex knows no bounds of absurdity.

As industrial feedlots replace small farms across the world, animals that would naturally graze on grass and small shrubs (even chickens naturally eat grass, not corn as portrayed by mainstream media and Big Ag companis) are locked up in thousands of indoor pens and fed a man-made mixture designed to fatten ’em up quick. Cows that maintain a natural grass-fed diet take four or five years to reach market weight, where an industrial-raised cow pumped with animal feed reaches market weight in 14 months.

Most animal feed is composed of corn and soybeans. These protein rich grains accelerate the growth of animals to get them to reach market weight quickly at a low cost. As a result, nearly 47 percent of soybeans and 60 percent of corn grown in the United States is consumed by livestock.That’s over half of the country’s corn and just under half of its soybeans. Wow.

But it get’s worse. Cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens have not evolved to eat soy or corn and doing so can cause serious digestive problems. Cows that are fed corn can only stand to live on a feed-lot diet for up to six months, after that if they continue to eat corn they develop ulcers, liver disease and can even suffocate from excessive bloating. Chickens that are fed soy have trouble absorbing necessary nutrients and vitamins. Not to mention the fact that people who eat industrially raised meat are exposed to the hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides mixed into animal feed.

We’re using the majority of our grain stores to raise sick animals that make people sick. And that’s not where it ends…

But what else is happening?

The ubiquity of corn, soy, wheat and other commodity crops grown globally puts a tremendous strain on the environment. Michael Pollan refers to corn fields in the U.S. as the “second great American lawn.” Are our industrial monocultures the new amber waves of grain?

Arguably, yes. By replacing native plants and diverse crop fields with millions of acres of a single crop we’ve set ourselves on the edge of a pretty slippery slope. Monocultures deplete soil of minerals and nutrients requiring large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain constant planting cycles. These chemicals contribute to air and water pollution and have been shown to exacerbate climate change and threaten drinking water.

Industrial soybean production is a leading cause of deforestation in South America. In Argentina, more than 100 million hectares of native forest have been cleared for Big Soy. Soy production poses a serious threat to the Amazon rainforest and the deforestation caused by soybean plantations in Brazil is responsible for the release of 473 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Corn is native to North America but can now be found across the globe. Corn occupies 90 percent of cultivated land in Malawi and has been planted in across East Africa. Corn crops require a lot of water and are highly susceptible to droughts that are common in these regions. By replacing native, diverse crops that can withstand regional weather patterns with monocultures that cannot, these area are subject to famine if crops fail.

What Can We Do?

The best thing you can do to stop this crazy cycle is to stop or greatly reduce your meat-eating. By decreasing the global demand for meat we can stop the excessive cultivation of grains used for animal feed (there are also MANY other benefits of going meat-free).

You can also stand-up to industrial agriculture by:

The more you Support small-scale farming in your area, the more you are helping to end our global reliance on industrial farming and safeguarding the future of our food supply!

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Image source: James Rickwood/Flickr