How industrial agriculture helps Putin’s war

‘The U.S. Subsidy That Empowers Putin’ – this headline of an article by George W. Bush’s former speech writer David Frum in The Atlantic[1] certainly caught my attention. “For decades, the U.S. government has, at great expense, encouraged farmers to grow more corn so that it can be turned into ethanol, a gasoline additive. Ethanol makers receive all kinds of grants and subsidies. Federal regulations require ethanol to be blended into gasoline, creating a giant industry that would not exist without large subsidies and imperious mandates. America’s largest ethanol company earned annual revenues of $8 billion pre-pandemic. Demand from the ethanol industry, in turn, bids up the price of corn, and the income of those who farm it” writes Frum and concludes that “we’re missing that America’s ethanol madness has strengthened Russia’s grip upon the world’s food supply”. Between 2008 and 2016 US farmers planted corn on an additional 2.8 million hectares, 56% of all agricultural land in the US is now planted with either corn or soy. While corn predominantly goes into ethanol production, some soy is used to produce bio-diesel, the majority of the crop will be sold as animal feed.

What has US maize to do with Putin and the war?

The corn we eat is sweetcorn, the soy beans on our plates are edamame, both are non-GM varieties grown by market gardeners on a tiny proportion of land. Over 90% or the corn and soy grown for the starch and protein content that is needed for ethanol and animal feed are GM varieties. Over the past two decades GM maize and soy have replaced much of the bread wheat that used to be grown in most midwestern states – and that’s where Putin comes in: “Russia has become so dominant in wheat markets in great part because America has retreated from them. U.S. wheat production was about one-third lower in 2018 than at its peak in the early 1980s”, writes Frum. The Economist took a look at the grain markets: “Today Russia and Ukraine, respectively the largest and fifth-largest wheat exporters, together account for 29% of international annual sales. (…) The fallout from the war will be felt in three ways: disruption to current grain shipments, low or inaccessible future harvests in Ukraine and Russia, and withered production in other parts of the world[2]”. Hardest hit by scarce supplies and rising prices will be poorer countries, particularly in the Middle East and in Africa. In addition, Ukraine is the world’s top exporter of sunflower oil. Another crop that could be grown in vast quantities and good quality in European countries and the US – the sunflower is the state flower of Kansas for a reason.

Grow food not fuel

May is the main month for sowing corn and soy in the US. Farmers won’t be able to switch to growing wheat immediately, but from a farming perspective, even for this season, wheat and sunflower acres could be increased. If that’s not happening in the US, it will be mostly down to the lobbyists from agrochemical companies, the Farm Bureau, and organisations like the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association, all of whom participate in the Ponzi scheme that industrial agriculture has become: to achieve the high yields the industry promises, farmers buy GM seed together with the prescribed amounts of pesticides and fertiliser. Pesticide resistant weeds necessitate the application of more pesticides, depleted soils need ever larger amounts of fertiliser… Not a problem with gargantuan machinery fit to plough, seed, spray and harvest huge areas in days. Many farmers are financially invested in ethanol plants, there are now more than 200 in the US, Iowa alone has 42[3]. Switching to (more) wheat would be a radical shift and would only happen if there was the political will to do so – which there isn’t. On March 10th, the two senators from Iowa proposed a bill that calls for the replacement of Russian oil imports to the US with bio ethanol. “The current excess ethanol capacity domestically is nearly the same as the amount of Russian gas the U.S. had been importing – roughly 83 million barrels versus 87 million barrels” Iowa Senator Joni Ernst said in an interview[4].

Energy hungry fuel crops

It’s not just that we can’t eat these fuel crops, what the proponents of ethanol also are not saying is how much energy is needed to produce them: the diesel for tractors and combines is the least of the fossil input required to produce so called ‘bio’-fuels. Even more energy intensive is the production of fertiliser and pesticides required to grow them.

In recent months, fertiliser costs have gone through the roof, and since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the situation for many farmers and growers not just in the UK has become critical. Farmers should make better use of slurry, was the helpful suggestion by Defra Secretary George Eustice. When he was confronted with the problem that most of the slurry and manure producing cattle are in the west of the country, while the arable farms in desperate need of fertiliser are in the east, he recommended a technology that removes water from slurry and then presses it into pellets. Alas, this is a technical fix and not one that is readily available.

In the increasingly loud and bitter debate about energy and fertiliser costs, food prices and possible food shortages, one obvious solution is not widely discussed.

Agroecology must replace industrial agriculture

Agroecology means farming with nature, on diverse farms that include animals. The west of the UK is mostly too wet and hilly for arable farms, but dairy and beef cattle can be kept on permanent pastures, often year-round. There will be no slurry lagoons, no need to buy in much feed and the cows fertilise their pasture as they go, literally. The drier, flat eastern part of the country is ideal arable land. Farms here, too, need animals: long rotations include cover crops and herbal leys that fix nitrogen and improve soil quality. Ideally, they will be grazed by cattle. In agroecology, most if not all animal feed and fertiliser is produced on farm, and the diversity of crops will dramatically reduce the need for pesticides. Not only will crop diversity reduce pest and weed pressure, additional flower strips can provide the habitat for beneficial insects. And there are now ground-mounted photovoltaic systems available that can be installed vertically or integrated in a field in a way that it can still be used to grow arable or specialty crops, or be grazed by animals.

Of course, it is not possible to convert from industrial agriculture to agroecology in one season, but it can be set as a goal. And some changes towards this goal can be made immediately – farmers constantly have to adapt the way they farm to new and changing conditions. Any change to agroecological practices will be good for the environment and good for the quality of our food. What’s not to like? The profits of agrochemical companies would be declining, of course, and Mr. Putin wouldn’t be happy either.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/gas-prices-ethanol-subsidies-putin/627053/

[2] https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/03/12/war-in-ukraine-will-cripple-global-food-markets

[3] http://www.ethanolproducer.com/plants/map/

[4] https://www.dtnpf.com/agriculture/web/ag/news/business-inputs/article/2022/03/09/grassley-ernst-offer-bill-replace

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years,  and is the author of “Regenerative Agriculture: Farming with Benefits. Profitable Farms. Healthy Food. Greener Planet. Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent  (c) @M.Kunz

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