What About the Corn?

Year after year farmers in the US plants a lot of corn.  A safe estimate is around 80 million acres with another 70 million acres or so going to soybeans.  Corn comes from South America,  soybeans are from East Asia.  When we plant these crops we plant them in such a way that we exclude or, at the very least, limit the ability of native plants to grow.  A safe estimate is that 99 percent of our cropland is planted in non-native species.  I’d like to get your opinions on whether it’s OK for us to go to such efforts to control invasive species like kudzu and buckthorn when, on the flip side, we’re going to so much effort to encourage other species which don’t come from here.

10 thoughts on “What About the Corn?”

  1. I’d answer a strong yes. If you want to argue about whether we should put so much land into cultivation, I could understand your premise. But, I don’t fundamentally get the premise that controling invasive species in what’s left of natural habitats or yards, makes it immoral to cultivate non-native plants for food production. If we plow lots of fields for cultivation does it make a fundamental impact on the environment of whether it is a native or non-native? Maybe in a world of peace and fuel-economy we could all grow what makes sense for our part of the globe and is native and trade amongst ourselves – but I don’t think we’re anywhere near that.

  2. I am just an avid gardener, not an expert on agriculture or horticulture. I emphasize natives in my flower gardens, but not exclusively (can’t give up my hollyhocks, bleeding heart, daffodils, etc.).

    On its face, the answer seems obvious: land dedicated to agriculture is not dedicated to the conservation of native species or to be a natural area in any way. At the same time, corn and soybeans do not spead into such areas. Therefore, it does not make sense to treat corn as an invasive, but it does make sense to try to control kudzu, garlic mustard, etc.

    I hope this question is not an exercise in native-plant-enthusiat-baiting. I count myself among that group, though I reject the purist approach.

    I’m disturbed sometimes by the tone of the attacks on native plant advocates. For example, Michael Pollan described such folks as Nazis, which was over the top on many levels. But other, milder criticisms seem just as misguided as the folks who think everyone’s backyard should recreate the flora that existed in the pre-columbian age.

    Both the purists and their critics miss the vauable kernel of truth that is making some headway but should make a lot more: many native plants are excellent for landscaping, they help insect and bird populations, they can get by with no fertilizing and less water, they are less likely to pose a threat to natural areas, and they should be used more often.

    I’m sorry if I’m wrong about your intent, but the question “what about corn?” has a slightly juvenile gotcha aroma about it.

    By the way, I am planning to purchase your book about garden remedies and look forward to reading it.

  3. I never been told that anything I’ve written has a juvenile aroma before–but I like the “feel” of that phrase! Now that I read over my own words it does seem like I’m baiting here — actually I’m not — or at least I don’t intend to. But I do think that it is somewhat hypocritical that we try to get rid of some foreign plants while welcoming others. It is important to realize that many introduced plants will deal with less water and fertilizer just like many natives — the common belief that natives can handle lower water and nutrient situations than introduced plants just isn’t true — it depends on the individual plant. While I appreciate the argument about cropland, I’m not sure I agree — after all, we produce more than we need (eve
    n considering the use of corn for ethanol). Why don’t we give some of this farmland back and encourage natives in that area?

  4. To whom will you give back the land and what exactly do you plan to do with the native plants that you intend to grow?
    Is there a commercial market for these native plants? Can we eat them? Are they palatable? Can we convert them to staple foods? Will they generate sufficient income for farmers to sustain themselves?
    We already have a corn-based economy [ even though it is subsidized by the Federal government]that serves us well.
    You are heading into dangerous waters when you suggest that horticultural ideals be transformed into reality because it is the market place, and not the scientists, that determines what we grow.

  5. I’m glad you like “juvenile aroma.” Feel free to use it.

    I’d be all in favor of policies that encouraged coverting marginal agricultural land into native habitat. However, I don’t see why it’s hypoctritical to control those introduced plants that threaten natural areas and not control those that don’t.

    In response to Mr. Becker’s comment – I’m afraid the government plays a very big role in determining what gets planted. Corn, in particular, is heavily subsidized (there wouldn’t be much of an ethanol market without government mandates and subsidies).

  6. You have to be really careful not to lump “non-natives” with “invasives.” Corn may be non-native, but I have yet to find it growing in the woods, but I find buckthorn, autumn olive and other “non-native invasives” growing there frequently. To me, that is the biggest qualifier of when we should start to really concern ourselves with a plant. If it starts to displace native plants in wild areas (which I have even found Norway maple doing in the woods), then it should concern us.
    Had Phragmytes not escaped, it would still be considered a beautiful landscape plant. The same could be said of purple loosestrife. If I come across a corn plant in the woods, I may change my mind-right after I eat it for lunch.

  7. Here in Melbourne, Australia, some hundred or more years ago over 95% of the indigenous grasslands around the metropolitan area were cultivated for cropping. “Grassland” as a descriptive term sells these areas short, for they were once home to an incredible array of indigenous flowering annuals and perennials, comprising of thousands of species from hundreds of plant families. Herbs, forbs, terrestrial orchids, peas etc… Less than 5% (from memory, the actual figure is more like 2-3%) of the original land covered by these ecosystems remain today, primarily confined to railway easements, roadsides and graveyards. Those are staggering figures, and who knows how many species we might have lost annals of history. It’s depressing to think about.
    I’d love to see more land given back to the regeneration of these once mighty grasslands, but we’re never going to get any of the species we might have lost.
    Also, try convincing a farmer to regenerate profitable cropping land back to what it was before it was farmed! That alone would be a huge hurdle, let alone the politics involved.

  8. I don’t think it is hypocritical to cultivate and encourage some non-native species and not others. eff, as you said yourself, it depends on the species. Plants are grown for a range of reasons, and I think we must take into account (as some others mentioned in this thread) what these reasons are. And, no, we will never retrieve what we’ve lost in terms of the biodiversity of grasslands etc. I don’t think we need to return already agricultural land to wild land, necessarily, though we do grow more than we need. I would like to see more corn and soy fields turned to other crops, other food crops that feed people directly (instead of being grown for fuel or feed stock), and maybe turn some of the fields to other types of grasses that are more efficient per acre for fuel production. If we use the land that is already in production as efficiently as possible, there will be less pressure on the wild areas that remain. I think it really does miss the point to conflate the issues of what we do with wild areas and how we manage our agricultural land and food production. We need to differentiate food crops from other crops, and invasive from non-invasive, if we want to both maintain wild areas and have a diverse and plentiful (human) food supply.

  9. There are a couple of key points here. One, the vast majority of the public accepts the planting of non-invasive exotics agronomic crops that provide economic and social utility (leaving aside the GMO issue for the time being). But when it comes to ornamental plants, which certainly provide economic and societal values, the public is less accepting. Part of the problem I see is that in many eyes, alien = invasive; native = good. Obviously the readers of this blog are enlightened enough to realize that most aliens are not invasive. I’m certainly not going to argue that natives are bad, but, despite the usual assertions that natives “perpetuated themselves for thousands of years before Europeans, blah, blah…” and therefore perfectly adapted; many natives are ecological wimps when it comes to the reality of growing in the built environment. Juvenile ‘gotcha’ aroma or not, I think Jeff is on the mark in that we need to get the public thinking beyond the surface on this issue.

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