Cool the Climate by Dr. D. Michael Shafer is a series of 5 articles proposing an actionable plan to reverse global warming.
Cool the Climate, Clean the Environment, Improve Public Health, Reduce Rural Poverty with Small-Scale Biochar – Part 1
The Ubiquity of Corn
This article is the first of a five part series that addresses a large, unknown threat to the global climate and the health of billions of people: smoke from small farmers in the developing world burning billions of tonnes of crop waste annually. Rather than taking on this huge topic in the abstract, I want to focus on a single, well-known crop, corn, and the poor families that farm it. Important in its own right, corn is a leading example of a crop that has succeeded commercially in global agricultural commodity markets. It is an exemplar of the commodity crop grown locally for consumption globally, specifically, as feed for animals raised for global meat markets.
In brief, Cool the Climate series does the following. Here I establish how much corn is grown in the developing world and how much corn crop waste remains to burn.
In Part 2, I answer the question that, unless answered compellingly, results in articles like this being filed under “interesting” – forever: why should anyone care?
Part 3 then does what few articles do: it offers a practical, low-cost, cost-effective, replicable and sustainable – even profitable – solution.
In Part 4, I discuss market issues because my solution builds on a social enterprise business model, not the usual charity model that dominates discussions of climate change, the environment and public health. The market, I argue, is where the problems and the potential confront those interested in cooling the climate, cleaning the environment, improving public health and reducing rural poverty by cutting crop waste burning in the developing world.
Part 5 makes the case for small-scale biochar as the only means available to address these problems where they arise – and where the need lies – in the fields of individual, small farmers.
Authors of all ideological stripes have written about many of the issues raised by the global expansion of corn production. Some discuss corn as the show-child of how globalization either drives food insecurity or renders the concept meaningless. Others contend that large-scale mono-cropping is inevitably disastrous or that the threat is misconstrued. Some disclaim on the perils of genetic diversity lost and others on the virtues of seed company breeding programs. Some warn of the risks of “franken-foods,” others tout the benefits of reduced chemical use.
A different perspective on corn
I have no desire to enter this crowded fray. I am neither polemicist nor geneticist. I work out in hot, dusty fields with poor farmers. I want to talk about corn from a different perspective and in different terms. Here in “The Ubiquity of Corn,” the first article in the Cool the Climate series, I want to talk about corn as a hugely wasteful crop because this explains the size of the corn crop waste burning problem.
- At harvest, a farmer has 63% stalk, 11% cob and 4% husk and just 22% kernel. 78% of his crop is inedible waste.
- How much corn in produced worldwide is unclear. Despite the common sense notion that “corn production” refers to corn kernel, it often refers to kernel, cob and husk, which is easier to track. Because it is more conservative, I adopt this definition and use the 63% stalk to 37% “corn” kernel-cob-husk “waste to worth” ratio.
A typical, rural corn de-kerneling site. The 22% kernel is filling the pickup truck. The pile of cob and husk is 15% of total biomass. When the pile grows too big, it is burned.
The ash is worthless.
The Rise of Corn
“Toto,” Dorothy famously observed, “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” What she meant is that she did not see corn stretching from horizon to horizon. But that was then. Dorothy would be less certain today. She could land in Argentina or Burma, Laos, Malaysia, or Zambia and be surrounded by corn.
What happened in the years since that fateful tornado? Decolonization, containerization, integrated markets – and wealth. The rise of a global middle class with the money to eat meat and ice cream. To raise all those animals requires lots of cheap, easily transported and stored, essentially indestructible feed. Given that corn will grow almost anywhere under almost any conditions and is transportable, storable and indestructible, it is not surprising that corn production spread like wildfire to become the cash crop of the cheap, marginal lands of the developing world’s fringe.
The Size of Corn
The rapidity and thoroughness of corn’s penetration of the developing world is an amazing story just by the numbers. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) keeps corn production statistics for every country in the world. Graph 1 shows the increase in developing world corn production from 111 million tonnes in 1970 to 544 million tonnes in 2015. (All figures from FAOSTAT.
To give a sense of the rate of increase, Graph 2 plots the decade-on-decade percentage increases required to accomplish this 490% increase in 45 years – 200% in the first 15 years of the 21st century.
Graph 3 shows how rapidly individual countries became big producers. In 1970, 49 countries produced 125,000 tonnes of corn or more annually, forty years later, 67 did.
Blue = 125,000 tonnes/year or more Orange = 250,000 tonnes/year or more Grey = 500,000 tonnes/year or more
For us, however, the point is not the corn; the point is the waste left behind.
The Wasteland of Corn
The story of the amazing expansion of developing world corn production is also the story of the far more amazing expansion of corn crop waste to be burned. Remember, even if you define “corn production” as the amount of kernel, cob and husk farmers take out of their fields; “corn production” is just 37% of the total corn crop. The remaining 63% is corn stalk that is left as waste to be cleared, normally by burning, before the next planting.
This is 63% of the annual corn crop.
Once fired, dead corn stalk burns for kilometers.
Not to put too fine a point on it, if developing world farmers produced 544 million tonnes of corn in 2015, they had 1.5 billion tonnes of corn stalk to clear afterwards.
As we will see in Part 2 of the Cool the Climate series, “Why Care that Corn Burns Dirty?” open field burning even a small portion of 1.5 billion tonnes of corn stalk has nasty consequences for the climate, the environment and the humans who inhabit it.
 “Tonne” denotes “metric ton” (1,000 kg or 2,200 lbs.). These figures refer to corn grown under developing world conditions on steep slopes with degraded soils and no fertilizers. Warm Heart data from North Thailand where farmers’ rule of thumb is 6 parts kernel to 3 parts cob to 1 part husk for the dry “corn on the cob” they bring in to be dekernelled.
 FAO asserts that the growth of the livestock sector is a key driver of world agricultural growth. World meat consumption has increased 5-6% per year and milk consumption 3.4-3.8%, although “disproportionately concentrated in the industrial countries.” http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4252e/y4252e05b.htm
 As regards figures, “developing world” refers to a master list of approximately 93 countries that varies in number as, for example, “Former Sudan” becomes “Sudan” and “Southern Sudan.” The list ignores many tiny island states such as Kiribatu and Vanatu and throughout uses the single entry for “China.”