Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.  – Dwight Eisenhower

Corn is an awkward crop. Because of its shallow roots, it is susceptible to droughts, intolerant of nutrient-deficient soils, and prone to being uprooted by high winds. Corn reproduces sexually each year, randomly selecting half the genes from a given plant to propagate to the next generation. Corn breeding in prehistory led to larger plants and larger ears. Modern breeding began in the 19th century and, in the past 75 years, both conventional cross-breeding and genetic modification have succeeded in making corn less awkward, increasing output and reducing the impact of droughts and pests.

Many of the corn varieties grown in the US and Canada today are hybrids; over 90 per cent are the result of genetic modification. Grown commercially since 1997, GM corn now accounts for about one-third of the corn grown in the world, most of which has been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, or to provide protection against natural pests. Glyphosate, sold as Roundup, is a relatively inexpensive herbicide that kills all plants except those with genetic tolerance, which pretty much means all of them.

Monsanto released glyphosate-resistant soybeans under the name Roundup Ready Soybeans in 1996 and within ten years 80 per cent of all soybeans grown in the US were Roundup Ready.

Roundup Ready corn received FDA approval in 1997 and it was commercially released in 1998. It used much the same technology as in soybeans but also had built-in insect protection in the form of a Bt protein, a naturally occurring bacterium that lives in the soil and is toxic to insects.

Scientists also modified corn genes to make the crop more drought tolerance. The USDA approved drought-tolerant GM corn in 2011 and it was first commercialized in 2013.

Over the past twenty years, GM technology has revolutionised farming and transformed the seed and agricultural input business. Previously, much of a farm’s cost of production was in purchasing chemicals, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Chemical companies made their money selling these inputs. Now the cost is in the development of the seeds. The result has been a merging of chemical and seed businesses with large chemical companies buying up the seed businesses.

Although GM technology has revolutionised the industry, its effect on yields is sometimes overstated.  By one estimate, about 50 per cent of yield increases since the 1920s have been the result of breeding, including genetic modification, while the other 50 per cent has come from improved farming practices. Better farming techniques have been just as important as genetics.

The USDA first began to publish corn yield estimates in 1866. Yields of open-pollinated corn varieties in the US remained fairly stagnant, averaging about 1.6 tonnes per hectare, for 70 years until about 1936. There was no significant change in productivity during that entire time period, even though farmers’ seed-saving practices represented a form of plant breeding.

Agricultural yields began to lift off with the adoption of hybrid corn in the late 1930s, but the most significant improvement in the annual rate of yield gain began in the mid-1950s in response to continued improvement in crop genetics, increasing adoption of nitrogen fertilizer and chemical pesticides, as well as agricultural mechanization. Since 1955, corn grain yields in the U.S. have increased at a fairly constant 1.9 bushels per acre per year, sustained primarily by continued improvements in genetics and crop production technologies.

The increase in global corn production in the last forty years has been more than impressive. In 1979, farmers in the US harvested 201 million tonnes of corn; in 2019 they harvested 366 million tonnes. In that same forty-year period, world corn production has increased from 425 million tonnes to 1.122 billion tonnes. Total world trade has increased by 100 million tonnes, from 70 to 170 million tonnes. However, in the same period, corn acreage has increased only 13 per cent, from 29 to 33 million hectares.

In his book More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next the bestselling author Andrew McAfee writes:

‘Farms of less than one hundred acres grow 15 per cent less corn per acre than farms with more than a thousand acres. And bigger farms get better faster. Between 1982 and 2012 farms under one hundred acres grew their total factor productivity by 15 per cent, whereas farms over a thousand acres grew theirs by 51 per cent.’

And as for the environmental costs of large-scale farming, Andrew McAfee writes:

A comprehensive review published in Nature Sustainability in 2018 concluded: “The data does not suggest that environmental costs are generally larger for high yield farming systems. If anything, positive associations – in which high yield, land efficient systems also have lower costs in other dimensions – appear more common.”

In other words – and contrary to popular belief –  large farms are generally more environmentally-friendly than small farms.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. More on this in later posts.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This is an extract from my next book: ‘Commodity Crops – and the merchants who trade them.’

3 Replies to “Cornucopia”

  1. Thank you J K for interesting article
    Does you conclusion apply also for other crops such as cocoa / coffee ?

    1. I don’t have the data but I suspect that it also applies to non-grain crops. It is counter-intuitive, but higher yields per acre in developed countries have resulted in an increase in forested areas and, hopefully, in biodiversity. I think the higher yields are not just per acre, but also in less use of water, fertiliser, pesticide and labour.
      The developed countries developed over history as workers moved from the countryside to the cities. They initially lived and worked in terrible conditions in the slums and in the factories, but they were still better off than on the farms. I don’t know whether it was the higher farm productivity that pushed’ workers off the farms or whether it was the higher wages in the factories that ‘pulled’ them to the cities, but it was a necessary stage in development that pulled people out of poverty. We are seeing this on a massive scale in China.
      Keeping smallholders on their farms in developing countries does not help them or the environment. Sustainability should not be about ‘sustaining poverty’. Jason Clay articulates this point very clearly in his interview in my book The New Merchants of Grain.

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