Corn growers may be thrilled at their outlook for higher profits, but some scientists are taking a dim view of high grain prices fueled by the booming ethanol industry.
For starters, critics say high grain prices take food out of the mouths of the poor and hungry. At the same time a new study published in Science magazine says biofuel mandates actually lead to greater carbon emissions and rainforest destruction because an acre of land that now grows fuel must be replaced by a another acre of land elsewhere– presumably in places like the Amazon - in order to grow the food no longer produced on that ethanol acre.
But Rick Tolman isn't having any of it. In an exclusive interview with Farm Progress Co. editors, the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association says high corn prices are not causing more starvation among the world's hungry and poor.
"We had hungry and poor in 2004 when corn was $1.85 per bushel," he notes. "The issue of the hungry is not so much related to how much grain we have stacked up and available. It has to do with politics. We have even had misunderstandings about corn being rejected by African nations because of the GM issue.
"The reality is, our exports are up record levels," says Tolman. "We are not taking food away from anybody. What we're doing is harnessing the productivity. We can do food and fuel, not food vs. fuel."
Land use study
Most studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. But according to a study printed in Science magazine, these studies fail to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest (such as the Amazon rainforest) and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels.
Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, the study found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. "This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products," notes the study.
But does every acre of corn devoted to ethanol really equate to a new acre of rainforest deforestation? No way, says Tolman.
"We've heard about Amazon deforestation for 30 years," he says. "We know Brazil has a lot of acreage to expand in the Cerrado, so they don't need to do anything to the Amazon rainforest. The dynamics there have more to do with the hardwood lumber trade - that has the most impact on deforestation.
If you want to do something about saving the rainforest, simply ban hardwood floors, he says.
"The corn industry is changing rapidly," he says. "We're getting a boom that's creating a reinvestment in technology and in the industry. That's creating more productivity, which means we can do both food and fuel."
Those rapid changes focus on three trends:
• The U.S. has doubled yields over the last 40 years and will double them again in the next 20 years, thanks to technology. "When you can get twice as much corn from the same amount of acreage, you can go into these new uses with no concerns about taking food from the hungry," says Tolman.
• Ethanol production per acre is increasing. In 2002 an acre of corn produced 375 gallons; last year the average was about 450 gallons. "Dupont and Pioneer suggest that by 2020 we'll be getting 1,000 gallons per acre," says Tolman. That takes into account yield increases, changes in starch and fiber and the (cellulosic) use of some parts of the corn stover and cob."
• The market infrastructure for Dried Distillers Grains is improving. "When we process corn into ethanol we have 25% leftover as DDGs," says Tolman. "Right now we have about 900 million bushels of DDGs in feed channels. By 2015 we should be displacing about 1.6 billion bushels of corn in feed channels.
When you take those factors together the supply picture looks much better, says Tolman.
"We believe that by 2015 we can be producing 15 billion gallons of ethanol – twice as much as current levels – and still have nearly just under 14 billion bushels of corn available for food, feed and export," he says. "That's substantially more than we have today for all of those uses. We're creating more for food and fuel because of these trends."