Can maize solve its environmental problems?

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Some call it maize, some call it maize, but whatever it is called, the crop is one of the most widely grown in the world. However, most of it ends up as livestock feed, consumed indirectly by humans.

For the purposes of this article, the term “maize”, from its Latin name zea mayswill be used, instead of “corn”, which is preferred in the US (although it’s worth noting that in scientific circles, the US also tends to use corn instead of maize).

Corn is the most cultivated cereal in the world. It comes with sustainability concerns, but it is also essential for food security and can even help empower women in agriculture.

When it comes to corn production, the United States is the number one country in the world. However, in 2021, nearly 40% (38.1%) of the corn produced in the United States was destined for animal feed, 28.8% came from the use of ethanol as fuel and 16.3% was exported.

Sustainability concerns are paramount for maize

Corn production in the United States is a good example of the problems the crop can cause. Margaret Smith, a professor and associate dean at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, explains one of the downsides of corn production: its nutritional requirements, which pose long-term sustainability issues.

“It’s a very nitrogen-intensive crop, it needs a good amount of nitrogen to thrive,” Smith says. The problem with nitrogen in the soil, she adds, is that nitrogen fertilizers tend to be very mobile. If it rains after application, the fertilizer can end up in waterways and create problems, although Smith adds that solutions to this problem are being explored.

From an economic perspective, Smith points out that recent fertilizer price increases “can make a big difference to the economic viability of corn production.”

In the case of the United States, corn production also comes with biodiversity issues, as is the case for example in the Corn Belt of the Midwest, where only corn and soybeans are grown. “The agricultural landscape is almost split between these two cultures, and anything done on this large, uniform scale brings sustainability challenges,” Smith says.

“This is not at all what a natural ecosystem looks like. Overall, it’s probably not a healthy farming system. The soils there happen to be extremely good for both crops.

Maize, food security and women’s empowerment

Beyond US borders and sustainability concerns surrounding maize production, this crop is essential in many parts of Africa.

Although only around 12% of the maize produced in Africa is intended for food consumption, it is very important for the continent’s food security, explains Erin Collier, an economist with the trade and markets division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. food and agriculture. Investment Monitor.

According to a 2011 food security article, “along with rice and wheat, maize provides at least 30% of dietary calories for more than 4.5 billion people in 94 developing countries.” These figures include 900 million poor consumers for whom maize is the preferred staple food.

Additionally, drought-tolerant varieties of maize are helping overcome harsh conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, and research from the International Food Policy Research Institute shows that growing maize can help empower women, while increasing corn yields.

The results reveal that maize farms jointly managed by men and women “are more productive when the women who tend them are empowered”. These households, in turn, are more likely to subsequently adopt technologies that increase crop yields.

Impact of the war in Ukraine on corn markets

More recently, the importance of maize made international headlines as one of the world’s top producers, Ukraine, was invaded by Russia in February, sending prices soaring.

“The countries to which Ukraine exports the most corn are China and those in the EU,” Collier says. “These countries have the ability to import supplies from other countries,” she adds, but says problems will arise if global supplies tighten. , as the hardest hit countries will be in Africa, “where maize is a source of food and where they depend on imports”.

“Before the start of the conflict, we had forecast that Ukraine would export around 33 million tonnes of maize for the entire 2021-22 season, which runs from July 2021 to June 2022,” she adds.

Collier explains that Ukraine had already exported about half of this maize and “was expected to export about 16 million tons of additional maize for the remainder of this season.” She adds that in the likely event that war hinders these exports, demand will have to shift to other places. “The other major corn exporters in the world are Argentina, Brazil, and the United States, so those countries would then have greater demand [placed] on them.”

There are promising signs of record harvests in Argentina and Brazil, which could help close this gap, “but there have also been dry conditions in Argentina and Brazil in recent months as their crops develop. , and because of that, we don’t know what the end result of the harvest will be,” Collier adds.

Either way, even if other suppliers can make up the shortfall, a reduction in Ukrainian production will put upward pressure on corn markets, Collier concludes.

The agricultural world has a myriad of issues to overcome over the next few years, and corn production faces many unique challenges. Culture will remain vitally important around the world, but the damage it causes to the environment will gain increasing attention as the 2030 deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goals is getting closer and closer. Given the social potential corn can bring, solving these problems is paramount to the future of the Earth.

This is the second in a series of articles describing field crops. Previously we are covering wheat, and in the coming weeks we will be covering rice and soybeans.

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