Is there enough corn to go around?

Sam Eaton Jan 23, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: I guess it’s not plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself, but this year’s State of the Union speech has at least one echo it.

Last year, the president told us we’re addicted to oil. Tonight it’s gas. The White House wants us to cut gasoline use 20 percent over the next 10 years. Drive smarter. Have Detroit build cars that get better mileage.

And use more ethanol. Lots and lots more ethanol.

The corn-based fuel substitute is a rising political star up on Capitol Hill. But it’s not just corn growers who stand to gain.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.

SAM EATON: President Bush’s plan would increase the current mandate for ethanol use by a factor of five. Right now, virtually all of the ethanol made in the U.S. comes from corn.

Richard Newell is a professor of environmental economics at Duke University. He says the nation can only devote so much of these golden kernels to ethanol before food prices start to rise. And he says the current production goals are already testing those limits.

RICHARD NEWELL: To go much beyond that, what you would need to do is transition to what’s known as cellulosic ethanol. Which is ethanol that’s made not from the corn kernels that you and I would eat, but from the corn husks — grassy products such as switchgrass, wood chips, and so on and so forth.

But Newell says a thriving market for cellulosic ethanol is still years, if not decades away. Right now, it costs about twice as much as making the fuel from corn. And without a market, few farmers are willing to give alternative crops like switchgrass a go in lieu of guaranteed corn profits.

Iowa farmer and switchgrass proponent Stephen Gardner.

STEPHEN GARDNER:It’s hard to convince a farmer not to tear up those fragile acres and put it in corn and soybeans that he can have a . . . put the crop in this spring and make money off of it this fall.

Gardner has formed a cooperative of farmers to develop new ways to grow and process switchgrass for biofuels. He says if government policies can help cellulosic ethanol become economical, his group will be one of the first to cash in.

I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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