Layperson’s explanation on importance of corn

Today’s Globe & Mail ran an article on the importance of corn in the global food system.  This is of great interest for me because the price of corn plays a heavy role in the debate on biofuels as it is currently defined, both in China and around the world.

As it is now, nearly all bioethanol is produced by taking starch out of corn, converting it to sugar and feeding it to yeast to convert into ethanol.  The non-starch part of corn, rich in protein, is sold to animal farmers as high quality feed.  The problem is that with policies such as the Renewable Fuel Standard in the U.S., an increasing proportion of demand for corn is being taken up by fuel ethanol — from the article:

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that corn supplies are at their tightest level in 15 years. The agency also upped its estimate for how much corn will be used to make ethanol by 8 per cent, putting the figure at a record 4.95 billion bushels. That is nearly 40 per cent of the entire U.S. corn crop.

I don’t know if this analysis takes into account the feed that is generated from the leftover products of ethanol production — it definitely should.

In the meantime, prices are at record highs.

…analysts say corn is on track to break its all-time high of $7.65 a bushel some time this week. And few observers doubt it will stop there….It is a strong possibility that we will continue to hear and read about continued record food prices until 2011 harvest time…and corn could jump close to $10 a bushel if there are any weather problems this year.

While these price increases might not be the sole fault of biofuels, it is clear that for price reasons alone, ethanol must move beyond corn.  Technologies such as cellulosic ethanol must be developed even faster than they are today in order to make use of farm waste to make ethanol, rather than food.  In this way, if prices of farm waste increase due to ethanol demand, only drivers are financially penalized — not the entire global society which is now penalized through both higher fuel prices and higher food prices.

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Layperson’s explanation on importance of corn — 1 Comment