These is something fulfilling about waking through a field of grasses and flowers, all a slightly different shade of green and brown with pops of color, while a butterfly floats past into the abyss. This scene is all too familiar in the Corn Belt of America. Although, this melodious image is too quickly transforming into barren fields of nothing but corn rows.
Before the corn takeover, this region in Central America was (and in some places still is) composed of a compilation of ecosystems like wetlands, prairies and forests. The lush natural landscapes are home to an abundance of species, all working together to provide humanity and the world with services like sustaining, provisioning, regulating, and cultural services. However, hundreds of acres of one crop (monocrop) fail horrendously to produce such accomplishments.
The Corn Belt supports a wide range of species. The most iconic, arguably, is the Monarch Butterfly. Elementary children of the Midwest likely recall watching these little critters bloom from caterpillars to beautiful flying creatures as they released them from their classroom. But, most kids – and adults – likely do not totally grasp the importance of monarchs.
Outside of their beauty, monarch’s are most well known for being pollinators. We all know pollinators are important. They provide us with our plump juicy tomatoes to chop up and put in our salads or blend with garlic to spread on fresh bread (1).
Plants rely on pollinators to fertilize their female organs from their male organs. Unfortunately, monarchs and other pollinators are losing their resources for reproduction, like milkweed and other plants. Corn is taking over pollinators resources, making it harder (and more expensive!!!) to grow fruits and veggies that give us pizza, BLTs, and pasta sauce.
In the last 160 years or so, Illinois has lost over 90% of its wetlands, 99% of prairies and 80% of forests (5).
What’s the problem with corn replacing these lands? Well, maize fields lack regulating services (atmospheric carbon sequestration, stabilization against soil erosion), is unstable (it is readily ravaged by pests and invaded by exotics), steadily loses nutrients (in the absence of legumes), lacks many cultural services prairies provide (aesthetic and inspirational value), and comes up short on most other ecosystem functions and services even though it gets high marks for food production (4).
So, the previous wetlands, forests and prairies that once serviced us in wastewater treatment, stormwater management, recreation, aesthetics, and habitat are practically gone (2).
The United States produces approximately 40%–45% of the world’s corn supply and is responsible for 70% of the total global exports (3). Corn is a major resource to our modern world. Everyone who uses batteries, consumes packaged foods, and eats conventional meat is supporting the saturation of the ecosystem.
Ecological fate has three choices. We can either attain a life-sustaining equilibrium, oscillate between harsh and equitable conditions, or collapse to sterility.
A wise man would likely strive for the first option. But, at least for now, maize trumps monarchs, and that is the merciless truth.
What are your thoughts on this subject?
Thanks for reading.
In Soil We Trust,
(1) Andrés, José. (2014, Sept. 23). Why We Need to Protect Monarch Butterflies. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/jose- andres-why-we-need-to-protect-monarch-butterflies
(2) Childers, D., Cadenasso, M., Morgan Grove, J., Marshall, V., McGrath, B., & Pickett, S. (2015). An ecology for cities: A transformational nexus of design and ecology to advance climate change resilience and urban sustainability. Sustainability (Basel,
Switzerland), 7(4), 3774–3791. https://doi.org/10.3390/su7043774
(3) Kucharik, C., & Ramankutty, N. (2005). Trends and variability in U.S. Corn yields over the twentieth century. Earth Interactions, 9(1), 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1175/EI098.1
(4) Levin, S. A., & Carpenter, S. R. (2012). The Princeton guide to ecology. Princeton University Press.
(5) University of Illinois. (2021). Ecosystems and Habitats in Illinois. Illinois Natural History Survey, Ecosystems and Habitat https://www.inhs.illinois.edu/outreach/habitats/.