Fields of Gold: Changes in the US Corn Industry

Permalink at Visual News

Corn was once a straightforward crop, but the US industry has seen big changes in recent years. Ethanol and GMOs are both relatively new to the scene, and they are both hot-button issues. Since 1980, the use of corn has increased significantly as a result of renewable energy legislation. Not only are we using more corn, but we are using different strains of corn. In 2013, genetically engineered corn accounted for 90% of the planted crop showing a steep increase from just 25% in 2000. A series of graphs were produced by Flapjack Media to detangle the data. The full graphic is available here.

The issue of GMOs has gained significant coverage in the media. Professionals from many areas have weighed in – farmers, scientists, lawyers, health experts, and activists to name a few. In the visualization below, one of the most striking findings was debunking the GMO marketing message that genetically modified corn produces higher yields and will help feed the hungry. The data shows that corn yields have not seen significant increases at a rate that mirrors GMO implementation. The USDA has tracked corn yields since the 1920s and crop yields have improved during that longer time span, but the USDA cites these outcomes to be a result of improvements in technology and production practices, not GMO corn strains.

Ethanol is also a complex and controversial issue. In 2005, a federal policy was implemented to require standards in renewable fuel use. The research and development of renewable energy is essential because the planet’s oil supply is limited. But because ethanol is not yet cost effective, it is heavily subsidized by the federal government with an implementation benchmark of 10% ethanol use achieved in 2012.

The shift towards the increased use of corn for ethanol has, in turn, increased the market value of the crop. Farmers are planting more of their acres with corn since it’s more profitable, and herders are decreasing the amount of corn that they feed their livestock since it’s more expensive. A farmer on reddit commented, “the increase in grain prices has finally allowed people who’ve worked their whole life to actually have some retirement money. Best way I heard it put was that some farmers had worked for 30-40 years just for the past 6 years.”

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