ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

The Corn Quandary

Lisa Hamilton, a writer I hope more people will soon be familiar with, has an interesting take on ethanol from the farmer's point of view.  "If you actually are a farmer, ethanol and the high corn prices it brings is looking less and less like a blessing -- and more like a curse," she writes on AlterNet.

While the price of corn may be at a glorious four dollars a bushel now, when it evaporates farmers will likely be left to pay for costs that reflect a boom but profits that reflect a bust. Considering that much of the biofuels industry is already calling corn an archaic fuel source, looking forward instead to cellulosic ethanol, this crash is bound to happen within the next few years. ... It's beginning to feel ominously like the lead-up to the farm crisis of the 1980s, when high times led to unsustainable debt. They fear that the near future holds widespread foreclosure, not rural salvation.

What Hamilton proposes is not a boom-and-bust cycle, but a way to ensure farmers get a fair price for their goods. "What farmers need in order to rebuild their communities and secure their farm incomes is not an ethanol boom -- or any kind of boom for that matter. They need a system that offers a fair return for their product all the time, not just during a fuel crisis."


Ethanol and Biotech: Into the Future

By Lisa M. Hamilton

Ethanol’s future seems to go hand-in-hand with biotech, as evidenced by reports including a recent article by AP’s Paul Elias. But within all the news, there’s a worthwhile distinction to be made about what’s being genetically engineered.

One strain of research aims to make corn more compatible with fuel production. For instance Syngenta has genetically modified corn plants to include the alpha amylase enzyme, which performs the first step in the process of turning kernels into fuel. With this corn, ethanol plants would require one less additive, and therefore one less cost.

Of course this corn carries the issues that come with genetically modifying crops used for food. But it could also extend corn’s life as an ethanol source by making it more efficient—something that will matter a lot to corn farmers as better, non-corn sources like switchgrass rapidly displace corn as the preferred feedstock over the next decade. 

Other research focuses on bio-engineering the non-feedstock components of the ethanol process, to make them, in part, less expensive. Elias reports that with much of the research, “The idea is to genetically engineer microscopic bugs such as bacteria and fungus to spit out enzymes that will break down just about every imaginable crop into ethanol.”

This “inside” approach to genetic engineering, so called because it deals with components used inside the ethanol-producing plant, could dramatically change the ethanol-farm economy. When enzymes and other additives for the processing of cellulosic ethanol become affordable, corn will fall out of sight as a feedstock—and corn farmers know it. Whether the inside approach is safer in terms of unintended consequences to the food system and beyond?  That remains to be seen.