It almost seems like an annual occurrence: Some interest tied to the food or oil industry, or some ideologue with an abiding, if not irrational, antagonism toward burning virtually anything to power our cars and trucks makes the phony case that growing corn for ethanol takes away from global food supplies.
Let’s get this straight right now: U.S. growers produce enough corn to meet all three of the crop’s critical uses – food, feed and fuel.
U.S. ethanol production has increased eight-fold since the start of the millennium, driven by consumers and policy makers demanding an alternative to volatilely price foreign oil. The results of increased production include huge economic benefits, particularly in rural areas; cleaner air and greater national energy security.
But as the oil industry tries to hold on to its market share, and the food industry seeks to maintain some of the highest profits ever recorded, they attack biofuels by recycling the same tired and disproven criticism, particularly those tied to food output. They will claim increased ethanol production is diverting grain from food and feed markets, resulting in higher retail food prices. Or they will say that by helping meet the nation’s energy needs, U.S. farmers are depriving the world’s poor of needed food.
Advanced farming practices and technological improvements in seed and equipment have more than doubled corn yields over the past 40 years. And the current average U.S. yield of around 150 bushels per acre is projected to grow to up to 300 bushels in 15-20 years.
The bottom line is that grain supplies are large enough to satisfy increased demand from all end users.
Another perspective is that U.S. corn that goes into ethanol production, according to USDA, will represent less than three percent of total global grain supplies in this crop year, while the 97 percent of the world’s grain that goes to purposes other than ethanol will actually hit a record, amounting to more than that recorded for all corn uses in any previous year.
The food price argument has been raised repeatedly, especially since 2008 when grocery bills soared. But as has long been shown by USDA, agricultural economists, academics – even the Congressional Budget Office – increases in corn prices have very little to do with the retail price of food. Processing, packaging, transportation, and energy costs account for nearly three times as much of the dollar as the amount that goes back to the farmer, and that on-farm share continues to decline. The impact of ethanol production, numerous creditable and nonpartisan studies show, is marginal.
And a number of analyses in recent years show that the increased blending of ethanol results in meaningful savings at the pump, ranging up to $1.09 per gallon in 2012.
It’s also import to underscore the contribution that ethanol makes to the world markets in the form of distillers grains, corn gluten feed and corn gluten meal, the primary animal feed co-products resulting from the grain ethanol process. A 56-pound bushel of corn can produce nearly three gallons of ethanol, but also another 15-20 pounds of high nutrient livestock and poultry feed. As a result, nearly 30 percent of each year’s corn crop is used for animal feed.
And while ethanol feed co-products benefit U.S. beef and dairy cattle, swine, and poultry producers, they also help meet growing foreign demand for protein and energy feeds.
So the next time you are confronted with misinformation about corn ethanol production, set the record straight. Corn is not the only feedstock we will use in producing clean domestics biofuels going forward. But it is a major ingredient that is helping break our dependence on oil and transition to a cleaner, more secure and economically viable energy future.