Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”
History is littered with ideology gone awry.
The most recent example? Burning corn as a substitute for fossil fuels in an effort to mitigate anthropogenic climate change (which supposedly has a negative impact on the production of crops such as corn).
This is about as logical as publicity-stunt burnings of Harry Potter books because of objections to the contents within, which only results in more people buying and reading the books to find out what got the book-burners so inflamed in the first place.
With Harry Potter it was the fantasy world of witchcraft and wizardry. With corn ethanol it is the fantasy world of agriculturally damaging climate change.
A few years ago, a paper was published in the prominent scientific journal Science by Stanford’s David Lobell and colleagues that reported that human-caused global warming over the past 30 years resulted in a slowdown in global crop production. Modeling the climate response of the world’s four largest commodity crops—corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans—Lobell’s team calculated that as a result of rising temperatures and precipitation changes, global crop production was about 3 percent less than it otherwise would have been.
But consider this: The United States produces about 36 percent of the world’s corn. And about 40 percent of U.S. corn is used to produce ethanol for use as a gasoline substitute in an attempt to lower net carbon dioxide emissions from driving and reduce climate change. Globally, corn makes up 30 percent of total worldwide production of the four crops studied by Lobell’s group.
Multiply all these percentages out, and you get that the United States is burning a bit more than 4 percent of global crop production in an attempt to mitigate a climate-driven loss of 3 percent of the global crop production.