Corn Commentary

Improving Corn for a Hungry Planet

Growing corn in areas where water is scarce and soil is toxic may soon be a reality thanks to research being done at major universities.

purdue-cornPurdue University scientists recently received a grant of over $1 million to find ways to increase corn tolerance to heat, which would help farmers in this country when we have a drought like last year, but would be a real boon for farmers in Asia. The work will be done through the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Purdue professor Mitch Tuinstra (pictured) said finding ways to grow maize in the hotter climates of South Asia could help combat malnutrition and hunger issues in those countries. Understanding ways to adapt the crop to heat and drought could also help growers in the United States where climate change is expected to increase stress on crops. “There is a lot of concern about how climate change will affect crops, but we know almost nothing about thermal tolerance in corn,” Tuinstra said.

cornell-cornMeanwhile, over at Cornell University, researchers are working to grow stress-tolerant crops on formerly non-farmable land with high levels of toxic aluminum in the soil.

Plant scientists searched the maize genome for clues as to why some plants can tolerate toxic aluminum and found three copies of the same gene known to affect aluminum tolerance, according to new USDA/Cornell-led research.

Aluminum toxicity comes close to rivaling drought as a food-security threat in critical tropical food-producing regions.

Acidic soils dissolve aluminum from clays in the soil, making it toxic to plant roots in half the world’s arable lands. The MATE1 gene, which was found in triplicate in aluminum-tolerant maize, turns on in the presence of aluminum ions and expresses a protein that transports citric acid from root tips into the soil, which binds to and locks up aluminum, thereby preventing it from harming roots.

More Ethanol Plants Recovering Corn Oil

Corn oil recovery is helping the bottom line of ethanol producers with tight margins, according to a new report from the Energy Information Administration.

eiaBeginning in summer 2012, the prices of ethanol and corn reached levels where production costs at relatively simple ethanol plants exceeded revenue. These simple plants, which are not able to recover corn oil, make up a diminishing portion of the ethanol industry. Reacting to the market conditions, several ethanol plants temporarily shut down. By January 2013, the number of idled ethanol plants had grown to at least 20.

Relatively simple ethanol plants produce ethanol and distillers grains from corn. More advanced plants are able to recover other products, like corn oil, from a portion of the distillers grains. Ethanol plants with corn oil recovery units are able to earn more revenue, so they usually have higher profit margins than plants without corn oil recovery, even if their production costs are slightly higher.

According to the EIA report, corn oil recovery is one of several strategies that the ethanol industry is developing to improve margins. “Others involve switching to processes that are more advantageous under the renewable fuels standard (RFS). For instance, Aemetis in Keyes, California, is changing its feedstock from corn to sorghum and replacing its natural gas consumption with biomass. Other companies plan to produce butanol rather than ethanol, or integrate cellulosic feedstock, such as wood waste or corn stover (e.g., leaves, stalks, and leftover cobs after the corn harvest). These approaches allow their products to qualify as advanced biofuels under the RFS, a category that specifically excludes ethanol produced from cornstarch, which has been the dominant feedstock for the U.S. ethanol industry.”

Read more here.

Scorched Earth Strategies Burn Farm Families

Whether critics of biotechnology in agriculture are being intentionally obtuse or honestly believe that it is acceptable to rage against proven technology while basing accusations in willful ignorance, the current backlash against Section 733 of the Fiscal Year 2013 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Act has painted an inaccurate picture of the provision and panicked many sensible Americans. Anti-biotech vigilantes using a truly ridiculous combination of ominous implications and arguments based in their own carefully cultivated ignorance have misled the masses and, in doing so, furthered the lack of understanding that makes many fearful of their food.

Section 733, in its essence, protects American family farmers who, due to frivolous lawsuits based in procedural arguments and directed at major corporations, could face serious economic harm. The provisions of this Act would assure farmers that they could plant and harvest crops developed through biotechnology already approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under a temporary stewardship agreement in the event of litigation against the agencies decision.

In simple terms, Section 733 removes a potentially significant financial risk facing farmers. Today, the regulatory process for biotechnology leaves the family farmers who purchase seeds approved by their government vulnerable to costly losses should an activist group choose to legally challenge the government’s decision. Without this provision, these men and women, acting in good faith, become collateral damage in an ideological battle between those who embrace and eschew science.

The need for such protection has been made evident over the past several years as opponents of agricultural biotechnology have repeatedly filed lawsuits against the USDA on procedural grounds. In filing these suits, the anti-activists aim to disrupt the regulatory process and, in a broader fashion, undermine the science-based regulation of biotech ag products. These lawsuits strain USDA resources and delay the approval of new, innovative products America’s farmers need to grow abundant, affordable food and remain internationally competitive.

Furthermore, the anti-modern ag groups flaunt their use of the legal system as a weapon, openly admitting their intention of continuing to impede the availability of new products to the detriment of our nation’s farmers and consumers. In previous cases, these litigants have tied up the regulatory pipeline for years. Even when the Supreme Court has decided in favor of the defendants, these constant complainers continue creating controversy and threatening not only further delay but even the destruction of the crop grown by law abiding farmers.

While anti-activists may not understand sound science and live in constant denial of the overwhelming evidence that biotechnology is not only safe but is beneficial, they intrinsically understand how to engineer panic and fear. They expertly manufacture the perception of public outrage and then use it as grounds on which to attack a provision intended to protect America’s farm families from their assault on science. The scorched-earth mentality of their assault dictates that their ability to inflict collateral damage be maintained.

Don’t fall for the self-serving hype disguised as righteous indignation. Assaults on biotechnology in general and Section 733 specifically are assaults on America’s farm families.

Get a Bang out of New Corn Use

Here’s a new use for corn that you can really get a bang out of.

sky-maizeA team of Purdue University students have created a fireworks casing from corn which won the top prize for corn in the school’s annual Student Soybean and Corn Innovation Contests, sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana Corn Marketing Council.

Taking first place in the Student Corn Innovation Contest is a team that created a fireworks casing that is biodegradable, lighter and less expensive than what is now available. Pictured here are Alexander Parobek and Rachel Clayton, with a fireworks rocket containing the casing, and Polina Navotnaya and Jake Hoeing, with the casing. They received a $20,000 prize for their efforts.

Listen to an interview with Alex from Brownfield Network: Purdue Corn Innovation Winner

The second-place corn team received a $10,000 prize for their creation called Fog-Away, an anti-fog glass and mirror cleansing solution. Members are Anbo Wang of Jingdezhen, China, a junior in agricultural economics; Mitch French of Pittsboro, Ind., a sophomore in biological engineering; Hannah Doren of Northfield, Ill., a junior in food science; and Benjamin Lins of Racine, Wis., a sophomore in chemical engineering.

The winning soybean team produced Nature Loft, a soy protein fiber insulation that can be used in bedding, including sleeping bags; apparel such as hats, gloves and footwear; and other products such as headphones, and the second-place soybean team developed water-soluble Double Eyelid Glue.

Iowa Governor Brings Benefits of Biofuels to Beltway

corn-ethanol-pump_100172125_sIowa Governor Terry Branstad publicly made the case for the Renewable Fuel Standard and for introducing higher ethanol blends into the market in an eloquently penned opinion piece that ran in the Washington-centric publication Politico. Citing examples of how biofuels have benefited his state and looking toward the future of the industry, Branstad issued this appeal to logic at a time when important biofuels policies face an increasing number of attacks.

In the piece, Branstad not only points to the successes seen in Iowa economically from ethanol production, but he also directly speaks to often-repeated concerns over the impact that higher ethanol blends have on auto engines.

“Cars run well on higher blends of renewable fuel,” he explained. “Iowa’s state trooper fleet runs on E85. Ethanol is higher octane and thus a more powerful fuel. That extra octane provides an advantage to our law enforcement ranks and the high-performing vehicles they rely on daily.”

Branstad’s appeal for a steady hand in guiding the way into an American future that sees the full benefits of biofuels calls upon readers to think through the issues at hand and realize the importance of both the RFS and higher ethanol blends.

“We must not forget that most successful industries and innovations do not mature overnight. Cellphones were around since the 1970s but not widely adopted until the 2000s. And automobiles did not replace horse-drawn carriages in just a few years,” he concluded. “The RFS has been a key driver in this industry’s progress. We should not, and cannot, turn back that progress now.”

To read the piece in its entirety, click here.

Agricultural Education on the Hill

agday-katieThe U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance helped celebrate 40 years of National Agriculture Day this week with a breakfast on Capitol Hill and educational briefing on “The New Language of Food and Modern Agriculture.” More than 150 people — including Ag Day participants, members of the food industry, and Congressional staff — attended the event.

Illinois corn farmer and USFRA “Face of Farming and Ranching” Katie Pratt shared her farm story and the need for others to share their personal stories. “This Ag Day – and every day – I encourage farmers and ranchers from across the country to be active, share their personal stories, and answer questions from their community about how food is grown and raised,” she said. Katie also live tweeted the event @USFRA.

Also on the program was Erika Bowser-Poppelreiter, a Midwest farmer and farming/ranching expert with Ketchum, who presented a briefing on consumer messaging research and how the agriculture industry can work to restore relevance. The event featured a new perspective on food culture today led by farmers and ranchers.

Listen to the whole session here: USFRA Ag Day Educational Session

2013 National Ag Day Activities Photo Album

Ag Day at USDA

usda-agdayOur U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at the annual National Ag Day banquet Tuesday at the USDA Whitten Bldg.

Secretary Vilsack wished everyone a Happy Ag Day and then talked about American farm productivity, pointing to a chart showing how high the ag sector is compared to other industries since 1948. “American agriculture’s productivity far, far outpaced the entire American economy and its productivity,” Vilsack said. “It’s a remarkable story and it’s in large part a result of American farmers and ranchers embracing new technologies and new ways to do business.” Vilsack added that the main beneficiaries of this tremendous productivity are consumers.

Vilsack spoke to farmer and rancher representatives in Washington D.C. this week for National Ag Day.

Listen to Vilsack’s remarks here: Ag Secretary Vilsack Remarks

2013 National Ag Day Activities Photo Album

House Ag Committee Chair at National Ag Day

lucasThe chairman of the House Agriculture Committee spoke to farmer and rancher representatives in Washington DC at National Ag Day activities on Tuesday, praising those who work in the agriculture industry.

“The fact of the matter is we’re a critical part of the national economy and the food safety net for the country and the planet,” Congressman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said in an interview after his address to National Ag Day attendees. “We’ve been so successful in agriculture that there’s a tendency to ignore us – and people will ignore us at the peril of their future.”

Lucas explained where Congress is right now on a new farm bill and when he hopes to have it finished. “We are finishing up the budget process in the United States House and the Senate is doing that too,” he said. “Before the end of September, before the one year extension of the ’08 farm bill expires, we’ll have a new one signed into law and on the books. That’s my goal.”

Lucas says there are other issues the House Agriculture committee has on its plate now, such as oversight of the commodity futures trading commission and keeping an eye on how USDA is handling sequestration, especially when it comes to keeping meat inspectors on the job.

Listen to Chuck’s interview with Congressman Lucas here: Interview with Congressman Frank Lucas

2013 National Ag Day Activities Photo Album

Rural America: Today’s Canary in the Coal Mine

ETHANOL-1-hpMediumEthanol has not just fueled a movement toward domestically-produced, greener, renewable fuels in America, it has fueled a resurgence in the small communities that provide the backbone of our national character.

Rural America, simultaneously idealized in culture and forgotten in national debate, surged back to life during the biofuels boom. Children who only a generation earlier would have been forced to leave their homes in search of opportunities after college came back to their families. Equipment dealers, small bankers, coffee shop owners and so many others benefitted from the locally-owned plants that fueled our nation’s cars and trucks. Ethanol not only helped clean our air, it helped rebuild small towns and strengthen rural communities.

This quiet story, forgotten by a media that glamorizes a more fast-paced, high profile lifestyle, has been largely ignored. Victims of their remote geography and of the very values which set them apart, the farmers, small business owners and many others who struggled to build an energy secure, environmentally sustainable tomorrow for our country once again fade conveniently into sepia-toned memories of a bygone era.

Yet, someone has taken notice. Following in the noble footsteps of journalists like Dorothea Lang who detailed the ravages of the Great Depression, the New York Times gave a voice to one rural Missouri community. Here, the suffering from the anti-ethanol sentiment purposefully ignited to maintain the energy monopolies of the past is tangible. These men and women feel the immediate pain of a system that eschews the science and sense of Americans growing fuel for their cars and their economy.

Before spewing spurious statements and invoking the en vogue rhetoric, take a moment to consider the palpable consequences already taking hold by clicking here.

The men and women who became entrepreneurs, risking everything to build our biofuels industry, questioned the status quo. They did not accept the polished propaganda carefully designed to denigrate their dreams. In that spirit, one of optimism and rugged individualism, take a moment to consider the facts.

Obviously, someone has something to gain from this biofuels backlash. A great deal of time and effort has been put into convincing the American people to follow suit. Refuse to be a part of the crowd that would hand our nation’s energy security and environmental health to the silver tongued, covert coalition on a silver platter.

Celebrating the Relevance of Agriculture

agdayFarmers and ranchers are celebrating the 40th National Agriculture Day this week in Washington DC and hopefully letting those running the country know that as long as we need to eat, agriculture will still be “relevant.”

U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) Chairman Bob Stallman says they are encouraging farmers and ranchers across the country to use National Ag Day this week as a springboard to share their stories and answer consumer questions. “That includes talking about the new technologies we have, an emphasis on sustainability, and talking about that new, next generation of farmers and ranchers coming on board,” said Stallman.

The celebration of agriculture on Capitol Hill this week includes a briefing for congressional staffers on Tuesday, March 19 – which is the official National Ag Day. “The whole purpose is to talk about what our research has shown that consumers want to know about ag, how they want to relate, how they want to communicate,” Stallman said.

National Ag Day is celebrated during National Ag Week, which is always the week of the first day of spring, celebrating the start of planting season. If you would like to participate in USFRA’s event on Capitol Hill during Ag Day through Twitter – follow @USFRA or tweet with hashtag Ag Day (#AgDay) or hashtag food D (#foodD).

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