September 19, 2006
Ethanol Demand Driving Farmers From Wheat To Corn

Energy biomass technologies are creating a competition between energy and food as uses of grain crops.

“It is getting harder and harder for American farmers to say they feed the world,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research group based in Washington. “Instead, they feed S.U.V.’s.”

The decline of wheat and the broad relandscaping of America’s farmland have come about for several reasons. Better seed technology has given corn and soybeans a widening edge over wheat, and more favorable subsidies have encouraged farmers to abandon wheat. Changing consumer tastes and food packaging advancements have slowed American wheat demand.

But the growing biofuels industry is creating the strongest drag on wheat lately, as corn and soybeans are increasingly favored for their use in ethanol and biodiesel.

Fears of genetically engineered foods in major export markets have kept US farmers from shifting to genetically engineered wheat. So seed suppliers invest less in genetic engineering of new wheat strains. Whereas corn is used more for animal feed and so consumer fears of genetically modified food crops do not have as much impact. Therefore the gap between corn and wheat production costs gradually shifts in favor of corn.

Corn needs more energy and water inputs.

Corn yields are rising faster than wheat yields.

American corn yields rose by 30 percent from 1995 to 2005, while wheat yields grew by only 17 percent. In recent years corn has pulled further ahead, with an annual growth rate in yield that is four times that of wheat.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, argues that the increasing demand for biomass to make ethanol and biodiesel will bring the demand for energy into competition with the demand for food.

With so many distilleries being built, livestock producers fear there may not be enough corn to feed animals, possibly leading to shortages in milk, eggs, beef, pork and poultry. And because the United States supplies 70 percent of world corn exports, importing countries — such as Egypt, Japan and Mexico — should be worried, too.

In agricultural terms, our appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable: The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol would feed one person for a full year. If the United States converted its entire grain harvest into ethanol, it would satisfy less than 16 percent of its auto fuel needs.

Since I see the growth of demand for biomass ethanol and biodiesel as inevitable I tend toward favoring even more rapid development of biomass energy technologies. Sufficient advances in genetic engineering and chemical plant engineering to make ethanol and biodiesel might reduce the amount of land diverted to produce biomass energy.

Though I'd much rather see a bigger push to accelerate the development of photovoltaics and nuclear power as alternatives to turning huge amounts of land into energy production farms. Photovoltaics and nuclear power would use much less land to produce the same amount of usable energy.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 September 19 11:01 PM  Energy Biomass

Heiko Gerhauser said at September 20, 2006 3:23 AM:

The National Corn Growers Association:
"Does Brown expect to feed someone for a year on $10 worth of corn? Indeed, the sky must be falling when media and the public at large buy into this argument."

It is indeed amazing how cheap corn is. $1000 will give you a lifetime supply. Of course that assumes you live on nothing but corn.

I think "feed someone for a year" is somewhat misleading, most people listening to that statement won't realise that $10-20 of corn is enough for a year.

Robert Schwartz said at September 20, 2006 9:21 AM:

If you ate only corn, and you could bottle your intestinal gas, you would not need ethanol as a fuel, only as an analgesic for the cramps.

malcolm said at September 21, 2006 12:11 PM:


How big is a bushel?
A bushel began as a measure of volume, but the accepted standard for a bushel of corn is now measured in weight: 56 pounds. That's for shelled corn (after the husks and cobs are removed).

How is Iowa 's corn crop used?
Most of Iowa 's corn crop goes into animal feed. In livestock feeding, one bushel of corn converts to about 5.6 pounds of retail beef, 13 pounds of retail pork, 28 pounds of catfish, or 32 pounds of chicken. Iowa 's corn is also processed into starches, oil, sweeteners, and ethanol. For more information about how Iowa's corn is used, see the Uses for Corn page.

25 gallons for the SUV = 10 bushels of corn = 520 pounds of corn = 320 pounds of chicken.


1 pound whole chicken = 973 calories (311360 calories for 10 bushels)
1 pound corn = 427 calories (222040 for 10 bushels)

Hmmm ... more chicken calories than corn calories

But, nonetheless, 2 or 3 25 gallon tanks could feed a person for a year with more than 2000 calories a day eating a mix of chicken and corn.

Another interesting quote from Iowa's website:
How much ethanol do you get from a bushel of corn?
Many ethanol plants now produce 2.7 gallons of ethanol and about 18 pounds of animal feed from each bushel of corn. Corn and ethanol production are now so efficient that it takes less energy to grow the crop and process it than the amount of energy in the ethanol itself. See our Ethanol section for all sorts of facts and information about ethanol!

They sound almost surprised that ethanol produces a positive energy balance!! LOL

Doug said at September 28, 2006 5:05 PM:

I love unintended consequences. :-)

Dek said at December 4, 2009 6:14 AM:

Malcolm above proves once again why amateur research can lead to silly results. In his research you can make calories or energy from nothing just by feeding chickens corn. Thus if his research is right then then he has discovered the holy grail of free energy. Why are all the poor eating rice and corn meal when they could just eat chicken gruel.

Well I think his mistake was counting 1 lb of corn as 427 calories based of a dieting web site when in reality a bushel farmers count is based on dried kernals and thus give or take 1 lb equals 2400 calories and thus the conversion of corn to chicken is 4 to 1 the same as it's been since the pre industrial era.

I know this is an old post but I had to comment due to the fact that some will see Malcolms post and believe his calculations. I didn't check his Ethanol claims but I would not take them at face value considering his LOL conclusions on corn calories. Lesson don't believe all you see on the internet without double checking the figures even from non amateurs.

Katy said at January 12, 2010 6:13 AM:

Speaking from a farmer's point of view- As long as the corn demands and prices stay up, I really don't care what the corn goes for. As long as farmers stay in business. If that means going for alternative fuel, then so be it.

Bob Badour said at January 12, 2010 11:05 AM:
If that means going for alternative fuel, then so be it.

So, you really don't care how many starve as long as you get yours? Does that about sum up your position?

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©