Tuesday, July 31, 2012

High-Risk Corn and Government Bailouts

The weather is dry enough in Iowa that I am told TV news crews are there to do stand-ups in corn fields. The fact that you can do a stand-up in a corn field on the last day of July is, all by itself, a sign that something has gone wrong. The corn should be too tall for that by now. But the situation with the corn is not the natural disaster that the news stories try to make it appear. Some corn fields in the same areas will be harvested with half of a normal crop, or more.

One thing the newscasters surely will not mention is that they are almost certainly standing in a field of genetically modified corn. When grain crops are genetically modified, the objective is to boost yields in ideal weather. That’s the selling point that the seed companies brag about. When a seed is optimized in this way, though, it is at the expense of other plant properties that allow the crop to withstand variations in weather. If you had planted an heirloom corn variety, you wouldn’t be worried about this year’s weather. Rainfall has, after all, been about half of what it should be. That ought to be good enough for any natural native plant. Traditional commercial corn varieties are not as durable as heirloom varieties, but they may do well enough in a year like this.

Farmers who plant genetically modified grains are taking a risk on the understanding that the federal government will bail them out in years when the weather is bad. In years of favorable weather, of course, they get to keep their oversize profits. It is the same problem we complain about in the banking industry: privatized profits and socialized losses. This becomes a bigger issue in agriculture as climate change makes our weather more variable. There will be more very good and very bad years than in the past.

There ought to be a better approach to this issue that rewards prudence instead of reckless risk-taking in farming. As a start, though, agricultural “disaster relief” programs should exclude fields of genetically modified crops. Farmers would think differently about the risks they were taking if they knew the taxpayers would not be there to bail them out.