01/06/2012 04:50 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

On Being Amber Instead of Green

Crossposted with

Is poetic license about vegetation OK in a political campaign?

The presidential campaign season is upon us and so we'd better be prepared for some political hyperbole and truth-bending. Many folks of the green political persuasion have no doubt been put off by the broad swipes that some of the candidates have taken at climate science and the workings of the Environmental Protection Agency. (See here and here.)

And now a new environmental brouhaha is brewing.

Poetic Controversy on the Campaign Trail

In recent days we have seen a growing debate over one candidate's appropriation of "America the Beautiful" in his stump speech. Some critics claim the candidate has misinterpreted the song as extolling a vision of the United States that is at odds with the song's author's intentions. No comment here on that subject -- I'll leave that issue to the folks in the fine arts departments to suss out.

But there's also an environmental slant to this musical brouhaha.

2012-01-06-cornwheat2.jpg Corn versus wheat - topic for next presidential debate? (Warren Gretz/NREL)

Dust-Up on Crops

It seems that while on the campaign trail in Iowa, where corn is king, the candidate in question asserted that the song's "amber waves of grain" could be an allusion to corn. To which critics have called foul; one op-ed in the New York Times accused the candidate of "pandering" to the corn-entrenched (some, but not me, might say corny) Iowans. After all, it's an environmentally verifiable fact that corn is green as it grows (at least on the outside). Wheat, on the other hand, does have an amber hue in the fields. This would presumably lead most environmentally informed scholars of "America the Beautiful" to conclude that the "amber waves" were surely meant to be fields of wheat blowing in the winds o'er America's breadbasket.

A Politicized Maize

Is this but another example of a presidential candidate's anti-environmentalism -- a sort of green-washing of corn?

Or is there a more innocent but nevertheless disturbing explanation? To wit: One of the leading contenders for the White House is confused about the difference between corn and wheat. I frankly find this latter possibility strains credulity. I mean, all you have to do is compare a corn tortilla to a flour tortilla to appreciate the difference -- I prefer flour myself, although those on new-year-resolution diets might want to reach for the lower-in-calories corn tortillas (and even that can stir debate as corn may start out lower but since it's usually fried ... you can see where I'm going but I digress). Back to the campaign. Surely, given the rising importance of the Hispanic vote, all the presidential candidates have been thoroughly schooled in the ins and outs of tortillas. But again I digress.

So what's the appropriate environmental response to this flagrant bit of crop-color disinformation? I vote that we give the poor (not) candidate a pass on this one. In a campaign season that promises to be as ugly and counter-factual as any in recent memory, a little poetic license when it comes to agriculture is probably acceptable. But I give fair warning: There is only so much I can take. If anyone starts talking about wheat and elephant's eyes, the gloves are coming off.