Who moved my corn?

I have the great pleasure of giving a talk this week at the annual meeting of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society (AARES).  Tonight they held their awards ceremony, and I happened to be sitting next to Phil Pardey from the University of Minnesota who won (along with Jason Beddow) one of the research awards for a paper they published in the Journal of Economic History titled "Moving Matters".  

This is a fascinating paper that documents the movement of corn production over time in the US.  The paper illustrates the impact of hybrid and then genetically modified corn influencing what can be grown and where.  Changes in genetics and management practices allowed the corn plant to move  to soils that best suited the production of the crop.  As a result, they calculate that upwards of 21% of the growth in corn production can be explained by the geographic movement of the crop.   The results have implications for assumptions about impacts of climate change (i.e., that farmers can adapt by moving which crops, and which genetics, are planted where in response to changing temperatures) and for arguments about local foods (i.e., the sustainable production of crops depends on location of production, and allowing farmers to specialize in the geographic production of a crop can dramatically increase production).  

Here's the abstract:

U.S corn output increased from 1.8 billion bushels in 1879 to 12.7 billion bushels in 2007. Concurrently, the footprint of production changed substantially. Failure to take proper account of movements means that productivity assessments likely misattribute sources of growth and climate change studies likely overestimate impacts. Our new spatial output indexes show that 16 to 21 percent of the increase in U.S. corn output over the 128 years beginning in 1879 was attributable to spatial movement in production. This long-run perspective provides historical precedent for how much agriculture might adjust to future changes in climate and technology.

And, an interesting graph: