This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will release a couple of very important reports about the supply of corn currently being stored in America as well as the planting intentions of farmers for the upcoming growing season. No matter the reporting, critics of ethanol production will pounce on the reports as a more “proof” that ethanol is raiding supplies of corn and driving up the price of food.
This fictional food versus fuel debate is one that has plagued America’s ethanol industry from the beginning, and it threatens to derail the continued growth and evolution of the industry. This faux debate is as important to future ethanol producers as it is to existing ethanol producers. And those looking to capitalize on starch-based ethanol’s public relations struggles need to be cognizant of the fact that if current ethanol producers fail, next generation ethanol producers will be next on the hit list.
Ethanol: the backstory
But first, let’s discuss some of the facts around American ethanol production and the use of corn. Producing 2.8 gallons of ethanol requires just 1/3 of every bushel of corn entering and ethanol facility. Another third of the bushel is refined into a highly valuable livestock feed that is resold into the livestock feed markets. The remaining third of each bushel is converted to carbon dioxide which some plants capture and sell to soft drink bottlers and dry ice manufacturers.
With this Ethanol 101 back drop in place, let’s consider the estimation by USDA that ethanol production will consume 4.95 billion bushels of corn on a gross basis this marketing year. Even if you attribute the one-third of the bushel of corn that is gaseous to ethanol production, the actual corn use for ethanol production is closer to 3.2 billion bushels, or 23% of the U.S. corn supply. Importantly, virtually all of the increase in corn demand represented by U.S. ethanol production has been met by productivity gains at the farm level. The U.S. continues to feed as many herds and flocks and export as much corn as it historically has – while also fulfilling 10% of the nation’s gasoline demand with a renewable alternative to imported oil.
Food vs feed grains
Global demand and supply considerations are equally important. Using the same arithmetic, the demand for grain presented by the U.S. ethanol industry is just 3% of the total grain supply in the world. And, U.S. ethanol demand is for feed grains not food grains, like rice and wheat, that are destined for human consumption. The use of wheat and rice in ethanol production in the U.S. is nonexistent, and worldwide it is miniscule.
The threat posed by the continued propagation of the false food versus fuel argument to America’s ethanol industry is very real. Some of the world’s most profitable companies see this canard as a way to stop the growth and evolution of the industry and possibly an opportunity to turn back the clock. Obviously, the immediate threat is to those companies that are building out the market for ethanol and conditioning Americans to use renewable alternatives to gasoline.
For many of the multi-national companies involved in the effort to smear U.S. ethanol producers and farmers, it is a strictly dollars and cents argument. They either want more of the fuel market back or seek to return to days when they could buy corn from farmers for less the cost of production.
All about land use
But the concept of food versus fuel goes beyond bottom line economics. It is largely about land use. The idea that land currently used to produce any feedstock for biofuel production could be used for food production or left alone all together is at heart of the indirect land use change and threatens all ethanol producers alike. It is the theory that has allowed the once proud environmental community to be coopted by some of the world’s worst polluters in the effort to stop U.S. ethanol production.
In order to contend with the deep pockets and profit motives of the business interests aligned against our industry, it is incumbent upon all renewable fuel advocates to beat back this false choice of food or fuel with the facts. That means avoiding terms like “non-food” feedstocks because the corn used in ethanol production is not the sweet corn from Green Giant or consumed at summer barbeques. That means recognizing the entire industry will succeed or fail together. Apple didn’t immediately introduce the iPhone 4. And we won’t immediately see third and fourth generation biofuel production without successful first and second generations.
Success on Capitol Hill and in the marketplace will depend upon all biofuel technologies working together toward a common goal and recognizing that the attacks against existing technologies threaten the commercialization and future of promising new technologies.