3 Disheartening Truths About America’s Commodity Crops

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The amount of energy, resources, time, and money spent to produce commodity crops can sometimes be hard to grasp. As Americans living in a developed, first-world nation, we’re often distanced from the economics and impact of our food. This fact is perhaps even more relevant when it comes to commodity crops — the staple foods we utilize everyday, even sometimes without realizing it.

Commodity crops are defined as any crop that is traded, but in general they’re also non-perishable, easily storable, and undifferentiated, meaning that one item is indistinguishable from another (think corn kernels or wheat sheaves). It’s for this reason that often Americans don’t think twice about the commodity crops we use and consume on a daily basis; they’re so ubiquitous we almost stop seeing them or recognizing their impact.

But commodity crops do have a profound impact, both on our environment and on our economy, and often commodity crops have untold stories and histories that most people never encounter or think about. We’ve outlined three different important U.S. commodity crops and uncovered some of the hidden truths behind their production. From controversial human rights issues to significant environmental damage, here are some of the disheartening truths behind American commodities.

Beef: The nation’s water guzzler

America has a long-standing tradition of livestock production, and beef — perhaps more so than any other kind of meat — epitomizes the American diet as well as the nation’s profoundly carnivorous food culture. It’s difficult to think about American cuisine without conjuring up images of hamburgers, steak, or barbecue. Beef, for better or worse, is often the food we think of most when we think about our food traditions.

But recent research suggests that Americans’ attachment to beef is a roadblock to a more sustainable world, as well as an obstacle to a healthier diet. Meat, unlike most plant foods, requires an astounding amount of water to produce. At the top of the resource-guzzling food chain? You guessed it: Beef.

According to a 2006 study on water resource management, it takes about 1,600 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. The Water Education Foundation estimates an even higher ratio for Californian beef; according to their calculations, a pound of California beef takes about 2,464 gallons of water to produce. Further, according to some estimates, California beef’s impact on the American water supply is so heavy that you would save more water by replacing a pound of beef with a pound of plant foods than you would by not showering for six months.

With more than 12 million cattle living on industrial feedlots in the U.S., each requiring around 1,600 gallons of water per pound to bring to market, it’s safe to say the nation’s beef industry is a significant drain on natural resources — particularly water. The country also produces more beef than any other country on the planet, producing about 25.8 billion pounds of beef annually, or about 25% of the world’s market share.

Thinking in the long-term, it may not be wise, or even feasible, to continue to produce so much meat, especially with climate change ramping up the number of droughts and water shortages nationwide. For instance, 2013 was the driest year on record in California and this year the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, declared a state of emergency in the state due to a persistent and incredibly severe drought throughout most of the state.

Currently 58.1% of California is experiencing “Exceptional Drought,” according to the USDA’s Drought Monitor. That’s the severest form of drought the USDA categorizes, and more than 95% of the state is categorized as experiencing a “Severe Drought.” The drought currently affects more than 37 million people.

California’s drought has been ongoing throughout much of the spring, summer, and early fall, and while Californians are being told to use water in a conservative and conscious manner, the fact is that most of the state’s water (roughly 80%) goes to agriculture, with beef one of the most water-intensive crops to produce. According to a North Dakota State University study, for example, a single cow can drink up to 23 gallons of water per day, whereas humans generally consume less than one gallon per day.

Since cattle consume so much water, and water is becoming more and more difficult to find, it may eventually become more than environmentally unfeasible to continue raising cattle on such a large scale, but also economically unwise as well. Beef prices have reached record highs and prices are expected to continue to rise in the coming years.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service notes that the trend of rising beef prices is expected to continue. “Beef and veal prices are up 15.1% year-over-year. Prices remain high as the U.S. cattle inventory continued to decrease in recent months and is currently at its lowest level since 1951 … Most retail beef prices, on average, are at record highs, even after adjusting for inflation. ERS now predicts that beef and veal prices will increase 8.0% to 9.0% in 2014.”

Further, it’s not just consumers who are finding it difficult to afford beef — many restaurants are having to think twice as well. The Long Beach Post reported that some Southern California restaurants are taking beef off the menu rather than source their meat from out-of-state. On the ranchers end of things, many California farmers are having to cull otherwise healthy cattle due to drought simply because there aren’t adequate resources to water all of their animals.

Corn: A subsidized staple

According to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy primer, more than 90% of agriculture subsidies go to farmers of five different staple crops: Wheat, corn soybeans, rice, and cotton. While more than 800,000 farmers and landowners receive subsidies, payments are mostly directed at the largest producers.

Corn farmers account for the majority of these subsidies. In the last 15 years, U.S. taxpayers have paid corn farmers more than $77 billion dollars, and 10% of America’s farmers collect more than 75% of the subsidies.

Farm subsidies aren’t a new phenomenon in the United States, however. According to the Library of Economics and Liberty, “modern agricultural subsidy programs in the United States began with the New Deal and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.” While agricultural subsidies have a fairly long history in America, they’ve almost always been controversial. Economists, for one, have criticized farm subsidies on several counts. “First, farm subsidies typically transfer income from consumers and taxpayers to relatively wealthy farmland owners and farm operators. Second, they impose net losses on society, often called deadweight losses, and have no clear broad social benefit. Third, they impede movements toward more open international trade in commodities and thus impose net costs on the global economy,” according to the Library.

Many others have also criticized the kinds of crops that the government chooses to subsidize. Though corn may be one of the biggest crops in the U.S., it isn’t exactly the healthiest, leading some experts to argue the nation is essentially subsidizing poor eating habits using taxpayers’ money. According to one report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, most of the produce the USDA subsidizes eventually ends up in junk food.

“[Seventeen] billion of the total $260 billion the government spent subsidizing agriculture went to just four common food additives: Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils,” notes U.S. PIRG. By comparison, the government spent $261 million subsidizing apples, and even less subsidizing healthy vegetables such as spinach or broccoli.

Another issue with farm subsidies is that while Americans might like to think that they are supporting working or middle class family farms with their tax dollars, in reality it is usually the largest producers that benefit the most from the subsidies. Approximately 75% of subsidies went to the largest 10% of producers, for instance, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Some of the controversy surrounding farm subsidies has played out in the 2014 version of the Farm Bill, which has seen some pretty drastic changes in comparison with previous versions. The 2008 version, for instance, continued direct payments, a system which delivered subsidies to farmers regardless of whether or not they had incurred losses. The new bill has also included $100 million in funding to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well as $125 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which will aim to help make nutritious food more accessible to low-income Americans.

The 2014 Farm Bill also cut subsidies for traditional commodities by more than 30%, while funding for fruits, vegetables and organic increased by more than 50%, totaling $3 billion over the next 10 years. Further, “for farmers of fruits and vegetables, oddly referred to in ag-speak as specialty crops, the ability to participate in crop insurance programs, which were expanded as direct payments to farmers were ended, is a major victory.” In other words, it seems that things are (slowly) changing in the world of subsidized corn.

Fruit: Migrant workers’ rights

The fruit industry is one of the largest in the country. It generates about $18 billion annually, accounting for about 13% of all crop receipts in the U.S., according to the USDA’s ERS.

Citrus fruits make up a large portion of those fruit crops. According to Statista, the annual cash receipts of citrus fruits ranged about 3.2 million in 2011. The U.S. generally produces more than 7 million oranges each year, second only to Brazil, and U.S. citrus exports total valued at $1.0 billion in 2012, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.

Fruit seems harmless enough. It doesn’t demand nearly as much water to produce as cattle, and it’s clearly a productive and important American commodity; the industry overall generates about $28 billion a year. But it isn’t so much the fruit itself that is disheartening about the industry so much as the plight of those who harvest it. The majority of all farmworkers in the fruit and nut industry are foreign born, accounting for about 72% of the workforce. More than half of those workers come from Mexico, and nearly a quarter had total family incomes well below the U.S. government’s poverty guidelines.

Currently, it’s estimated that there are more than 3 million migrant farmworkers in the United States; using that estimate, that means there are roughly 1 million migrant workers currently working in the U.S. fruit and nut industry.

The issue with farmworkers in the U.S.? About 48% of them do not have legal authorization to work in the United States. As a result, most are paid strikingly low wages, and “rarely have access to worker’s compensation, occupational rehabilitation, or disability compensation benefits.” According to a study by the National Center for Farmworker Health, “migrant and seasonal farmworkers are some of the most economically disadvantaged people in the U.S.”

Migrant workers suffer in many of the same ways that minimum wage American workers do, but unlike them, they often live invisible lives because of their illegal status. Further, many migrant farmworkers endure extremely dangerous conditions when crossing the border, and recent reports suggest that border crossings have grown still more dangerous in recent years. Deaths along the border have risen steadily since 2000, and “the number of yearly border crossing deaths has doubled since 1995,” according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on illegal immigration.

In 2009, 417 deaths were reported across the border, according to Border Patrol data. Yet, statistics only reflect the number of known deaths and do not account for those who have never been found, underestimating the actual number of migrants that have died attempting unauthorized border crossings. Frequently, migrant workers die at the border usually from heat and dehydration, and sometimes hyperthermia. The Binational Migration Institute (BMI) reported in the mid-2000s that, “The fortified U.S. border with Mexico has been more than 10 times deadlier to migrants from Mexico during the past nine years than the Berlin Wall was to East Germans throughout its 28-year existence.”

Many Americans struggle to understand the plight of migrant workers and wonder why, if the border is so dangerous, the workers don’t just stay in their native villages. But according to anthropologist Seth Holmes, who studied a group of migrant workers on both sides of the border, most migrant workers do not see their pilgrimage as a choice. They understand the dangers, but are most often driven by desperation. Unable to support their families in their home country, illegal work is often their only option.

Part of the reason for the increase in deaths along the border is the result of recent tactics utilized by the Border Patrol; following an increase in funding, the Border Patrol has ramped up the number of guards along the safest parts of the border, pushing unauthorized workers toward the most dangerous crossing places, resulting in a larger death toll. This outcome has come to be known as “The Funnel Effect,” according to the BMI.

Congress is considering legal status for 500,000 farm workers, mostly from Mexico, who entered the U.S. illegally. The bill is endorsed by the United Farm Workers, most of Big Agriculture, and a broad spectrum of politicians. The bill — known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Act, which has passed the Senate — is said to have a 36% change of passing into law, according to GovTrack.us. If the bill is passed, it could potentially lead to less violent deaths along the border.
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