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Study: Climate Change Is A Growing Threat To Corn Production


And from food to fuel, corn is a major pillar of the U.S. economy. It's the country's biggest crop. One-third of all U.S. cropland is dedicated to corn. A new study says climate change and unsustainable irrigation practices are a long-term threat to U.S. corn production. The study calls on farmers, governments and businesses to cooperate to head off those negative effects. NPR's John Ydstie has more.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: There's no doubt extreme weather has hurt U.S. corn production in some recent years. Just ask Seth Watkins, a corn and cattle farmer in southern Iowa, about the summer of 2012.


SETH WATKINS: We started out with an extreme drought. And then that was topped off by the worst hail storm we've had - ever. So by the time it was done, we lost 40 percent of our crop.

YDSTIE: And just recently, violent storms dumped 14 inches of rain near Watkins' farm, causing serious crop damage and erosion. Watkins is a relatively small farmer, but corn is a huge part of the U.S. economy. Over $1 trillion in business revenue is produced each year on the back of corn production according to Ceres, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability that produced the study on the threat to corn production. (SOUNDBITE OF FAST-FOOD RESTAURANT)

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YDSTIE: To get an idea of how pervasive corn is, just walk into a fast-food restaurant. Order a burger made from corn-fed beef and fill your cup with a soft drink that was very likely sweetened with sugar made from corn. Or pull your car into a gas station and top off your tank. Ninety-five percent of the gasoline sold in the U.S. is mixed with ethanol, the vast majority of it made from corn. Together, ethanol and meat production absorb two-thirds of the massive U.S. corn crop. But about 16 sectors of major industries, from banking, to chemicals, to farm equipment makers, have big stakes in corn production.


BROOKE BARTON: Just last year, American farmers produced enough corn to fill a freight train long enough to circle the earth.

YDSTIE: That's Brooke Barton, the lead author of the Ceres study. Last year's corn crop was a bumper crop that set a record. Nevertheless, the Ceres study sees a growing threat. Barton suggests a preview of that threat is the current high price of beef. The massive drought that hit the Midwest and Southern Plains in 2012 restrained corn production and pushed corn prices to record levels, around $8 a bushel. Beef producers couldn't afford to feed their cattle, says Barton.

BARTON: That led ranchers to slaughter cattle early and has driven up cattle prices, beef prices, and also reduced jobs in areas where there was a lot of beef packing in the past, including in Texas.

YDSTIE: The Ceres study says corn production is also threatened by dwindling groundwater for irrigation. Twenty percent of the U.S. corn crop is irrigated. Much of it in Texas, Nebraska and Kansas is dependent on water pumped from the massive, High Plains aquifer. The southern portion of the aquifer is being depleted 10 times faster than it's being replenished. The goal of the Ceres study is to get businesses in the corn value chain to adopt supplier codes and procurement contracts that promote sustainable corn production. Coca-Cola has signed on. Jon Radtke, a sustainability manager at the company, says it is working with suppliers to adopt sustainable practices for water, fertilizer and energy use.


JON RADTKE: Once we show that these practices work and they actually will benefit the growers in the long-term - either maintain or even improve yields and yet reduce their impact on the environment, what we're hoping is that more and more growers will adopt that on their own.

YDSTIE: Iowa farmer Seth Watkins shares the concern about making corn production more sustainable. Right now, he's focused on protecting his soil from the more frequent, torrential rains in his region. He's using a new approach that involves planting strips of native prairie grasses in some of his corn fields to catch sentiment, absorb water and protect the soils productivity. But he's worried the continuing debate on climate change is a distraction.


WATKINS: We've gotten so caught up, in the country, over the debate of whether we have it or not, which is really unfortunate. I think we'd be better off just saying that we've got a problem, and we need to start addressing ways to correct it.

YDSTIE: Whether the broader agricultural community will be as motivated remains to be seen. The U.S. Farm Bureau, the nation's largest farm organization, has indicated it's not convinced that human activity is causing climate change. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.