Corn Commentary

Fill up With Ethanol for Earth Day

Want to do something really green for Earth Day? Fill up with ethanol-enriched fuel.

According to calculations done by life sciences researcher Nathan Danielson, president of BioCognito, if every car in America would use a ten percent blend of ethanol for one week, the amount of greenhouse gases produced in the U.S. would be reduced by nearly 1.3 billion pounds.

BioCognito“What we did was take some fairly complex modeling that was done by Argonne National Laboratory and distill it down to where it would mean something to the average consumer,” said Danielson. “We considered if you took E-10, E-85 and cellulosic ethanol and put it in a typical gas tank, what would the impact on the environment be.”

Assuming a car with a 20 gallon gasoline tank, Danielson found that filling up with E10 can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9.5 pounds per tank.

“Ethanol is just a very good fuel for reducing overall carbon foot print,” Danielson said. “The story gets better if we go to E85. If we get to E85, all the sudden you are sitting at about 90 pounds of carbon dioxide that you’ve removed from the atmosphere by using ethanol instead of gasoline.” Everyone filling their tanks with E85, he says, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 12.4 billion pounds in one week.

Danielson says that the same situation using ethanol derived from cellulose could reduce greenhouse gases by 282 pounds per car per week, or 38.5 billion pounds a week if used by every car on the road.

By the way, once upon a time, Nathan worked for the National Corn Growers Association and he is still involved in some projects, such as the Corn Utilization Conference.

Listen to Nathan explain his calculations here:

25x’25 Response to “Science” Reports

25x'25Media coverage of a recent article in the journal “Science” on studies that address the possible consequences of a faulty approach to utilizing lands to produce biofuel feedstocks only reported part of the story, according to the 25x’25 Alliance.

“Unfortunately, mainstream media coverage of the studies failed to report that they also identified ways to avoid these problems and insure that future biofuels give us both a new renewable energy source and greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” said a statement from the Alliance. Officials say the boost in production can be met by new and better technology without bringing environmentally sensitive land into production.

Increased demand for cellulosic ethanol and the next generation of biofuels has led to research into enhancing existing crops, such as corn and soybeans, with enzymes specifically geared towards ethanol production. While biofuels will lower the cost of farming inputs, higher yielding, technology-enhanced crops can make existing acreage more productive, helping prevent encroachment of biofuel feedstock production onto sensitive lands.

The Science article reported on studies that indicate clearing land for the production of biofuels would produce twice as much greenhouse gas as the use of biofuels would reduce.

Investigate the Golf Courses

NCGA has a wealth of information when it comes to the use of water in corn and ethanol, and one of the factoids we use is that the average-size ethanol plant uses about as much water as a municipal golf course.

Regarding this subject, I found this recent article from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association made a good point.


The ethanol industry used two billion gallons of water last year. The Environmental Quality Board has organized an Ethanol Work Group because that use rate may rise to five billion gallons. Golf courses utilized 5.6 billion gallons of groundwater in 2005. Isn’t it natural to ask: where is the Golf Course Work Group?

How much water have you seen wasted at golf courses or, worse, in landscaped areas that are set on timed sprinklers that go off even when it rains?  

EPA Report Shows Ethanol is Making a Difference

A new Environmental Protection Agency report released last week indicates that ethanol additives in gasoline have helped clear the air, ground and water.

EPAThe EPA report documents the success of clean fuels programs implemented by the agency, including the replacement of MTBE with ethanol in reformulated gasoline (RFG).

Ethanol use in RFG increased and MTBE use decreased — In the summer of 1996, about 11 percent of the RFG sold contained ethanol while virtually all the remainder contained MTBE. By the summer of 2005, the ethanol share increased to about 53 percent, with corresponding decreases in MTBE.

A key finding of the “Fuel Trends Report 1995-2005″ is that these programs exceeded expectations in reducing ozone pollutants and air toxics, and the research found that emission reductions were often significantly greater than regulatory requirements.

National Corn Growers Association president Ron Litterer says the report as further proof that ethanol is good not just for energy security, but a cleaner environment.

“The research is clear, and our growers are excited about meeting the demands of an expanded renewable fuels standard while still providing ample food and feed for domestic and export needs.”

Compare Fertilizer Use Correctly

A subject that is very misunderstood when it comes to growing corn is fertilizer. Here’s another installment of our Corn Commentary video series that was produced at the recent National Association of Farm Broadcasting convention. In it NCGA CEO Rick Tolman helps you better understand what’s going on in corn production as it relates to fertilizer. For example, Rick says that people hear that corn uses more fertilizer than any other crop. He says that’s because corn is planted on more acres than any other crop. That’s why the totality of fertilizer usage is higher. However, if you look at fertilizer use on a per unit basis corn is really middle of the road compared to other crops.

Rick also points to a white paper on corn production sustainability that you can download from their website. Here’s an excerpt relating to this topic:

The latest advances in agriculture technology enable farmers to apply fertilizers with pinpoint accuracy, minimizing their impact to soil, water and air. For example, the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, such as slow- and controlled-release fertilizers and stabilized nitrogen fertilizers, are helping to protect the environment by reducing nutrient losses and improving nutrient efficiency while improving crop yields.

One of the clearest measures of sustainable agriculture production is increasing efficiency, with the ability to swell output while decreasing inputs. According to USDA, growers use less nitrogen to produce over 50 percent more corn than in 1980. Furthermore, over the past 15 years, farmers experienced a 17 percent increase in nitrogen efficiency as measured by bushels of corn produced per pound of nitrogen applied which in turn means less nutrients lost to runoff.

Corn Water Truths

At the National Association of Farm Broadcasting convention NCGA’s Rick Tolman took time to dispell some myths about the use of water by the corn industry. He’s got some great facts and figures to explain why the numbers being bantered about as doomsday speak are really meaningless when put in perspective with the information those same people don’t say or want you to know.

Here’s an example of some facts you should know from Rick’s latest column:

* More than 85% of all corn produced in the United States is non-irrigated. So, that 4,000 gallons per bushel is mostly rainfall. That rain is going to fall on the land whether it has corn on it or asphalt or marijuana. According to the USGS (U.S. National Geological Survey), if that same land was instead in wheat, it would take 11,000 gallons per bushel. If it were in alfalfa, it would take 15,000 gallons for a similar amount. If it is a paved parking lot, the same amount of rain still falls. So, one perhaps important point left out by the good bug doctor and the headline writers is that most of the water corn needs is not being sucked from the ground or from rivers, but it actually falls from the sky.

* And, looking even deeper, according to the same USGS, an acre of corn actually gives off 4,000 gallons a day in “evapotranspiration,” the combined result of transpiration and evaporation. Over the course of a growing season that would equate to turning that acre of corn into a lake approximately 11 inches deep. Corn is a very remarkable plant. It gives back much of that water it takes up. That water goes up into atmosphere to start the precipitation cycle all over again. In aggregate, the corn crop actually returns more water to the atmosphere than is withdrawn from ground or surface for irrigation.

* Some other USGS statistics that might be of interest and add perspective:

  • It takes 1,500 gallons of water to produce a barrel of beer
  • It takes 1,851 gallons of water to refine a barrel of crude oil
  • It takes 62,600 gallons of water to process a ton of cane sugar to make processed sugar
  • It takes 62,600 gallons to make a ton of steel
  • It takes 2,075 gallons of water to make four tires

(To see more water trivia and facts, follow this link:

Media Misses Point of NRC Report

According to the Science Daily release on the National Research Council report “Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States” released today, “the committee that wrote the report examined policy options and identified opportunities for new agricultural techniques and technologies to help minimize effects of biofuel production on water resources.”

This would be a positive thing, as noted in responses from the National Wildlife Federation and the Renewable Fuels Association.

NWFNational Wildlife Federation Senior Program Manager for Agriculture and Wetland Policy Julie Sibbing says the report highlights the need for a new Biofuels Innovation Program in the next Farm Bill.

“The report notes that cellulosic biofuels, produced from native plants like switchgrass, should have less impact on water quality per unit of energy gained,” Sibbing said in a statement. “It suggests the adoption of public policies that encourage production of energy from cellulosic alternatives. America’s water resources will be under even greater pressure in a warming climate. Moving to non-irrigated, native crops to produce ethanol will go a long way towards helping to safeguard our water resources.”

RFARenewable Fuels Association president Bob Dinneen noted that the ethanol industry is already moving in many of the directions the study suggests.

“As this study accurately points out, U.S. ethanol producers are rapidly developing and implementing technologies that are improving the already green footprint of the industry,” Dinneen said. “Better efficiencies at today’s ethanol biorefineries are reducing water use, improving water recycling methods and utilizing wastewater supplies to further lessen the impact, if any, a biorefinery may have on local water supplies.”

Dinneen adds that the ethanol industry is evolving so rapidly it will be unrecognizable from its present form five years from now. “Technological evolutions will provide for more efficient use of natural resources like water, further reduce already low emissions from biorefineries, and allow us to produce ethanol from less resource-intensive sources in addition to grains.”

However, the media’s general take on the report was to focus on the “implications” - the scenario painted by the report assuming ethanol production continues on in its present form, using the current technology, and just producing more and more corn to make into ethanol - which is NOT going to happen. That’s missing the point. The study is focusing on the solutions, not the problems - as we all should.

Working For Cleaner Air in Minnesota

The American Lung Association of Minnesota has a YouTube video about their “Path to Cleaner Air” exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair. It focuses on how “Biofuels like E85 (ethanol) and biodiesel are making Minnesota’s air cleaner and greener.”

Thanks to Bob Moffitt, Communications Director, Clean Fuels & Vehicle Technologies Program, American Lung Association of Upper Midwest, for bringing it to our attention.

Do you think we should add it to our “Worth Watching” list?

Could Biofuels Benefit the World’s Hungry?

Now here’s a story that flies in the face of the whole food versus fuel flap.

Worldwatch Institute, “an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society,” has just authored a new book called Biofuels for Transport: Global Potential and Implications for Energy and Agriculture.

In it, the authors make the startling claim that the increase in world agriculture prices caused by the global boom in biofuels could benefit many of the world’s rural poor.
World Watch Institute
“Decades of declining agricultural prices have been reversed thanks to the growing use of biofuels,” says Christopher Flavin, president of the Institute. “Farmers in some of the poorest nations have been decimated by U.S. and European subsidies to crops such as corn, cotton, and sugar. Today’s higher prices may allow them to sell their crops at a decent price, but major agriculture reforms and infrastructure development will be needed to ensure that the increased benefits go to the world’s 800 million undernourished people, most of whom live in rural areas.”

The book also concludes:

Growth in biofuels production may have unexpected economic benefits, according to the experts who contributed to the report. Of the 47 poorest countries, 38 are net importers of oil and 25 import all of their oil; for these nations, the tripling in oil prices has been an economic disaster. But nations that develop domestic biofuels industries will be able to purchase fuel from their own farmers rather than spending scarce foreign exchange on imported oil.

The book does say that current biofuels production methods do place a burden on land and water resources but says “the long-term potential of biofuels is in the use of non-food feedstock, including agricultural and forestry wastes, as well as fast-growing, cellulose-rich energy crops such as perennial grasses and trees.”

“Biofuels alone will not solve the world’s transportation-related energy problems,” the authors conclude. “Development of these fuels must occur within the context of a transition to a more efficient, less polluting and more diversified global transport sector. They must be part of a portfolio of options that includes dramatc improvements in vehicle fuel economy, investment in public transportation, and better urban planning.”

Read more here.

Genetically Engineered Sustainability

GMO CropsThis photo from the image library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows crops or products that have either already been genetically engineered or are involved in ongoing or planned transgenic studies.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering are often a source of controversy because of fears that modifying crops genetically could impact human health or biodiversity or something. But a recent study indicates that genetically modified crops might actually help contribute to increased productivity in sustainable agriculture.

The study published in the June 8 issue of the journal Science, analyzes for the first time environmental impact data from field experiments all over the world, involving corn and cotton plants with a Bt gene inserted for its insecticidal properties.

In an analysis of 42 field experiments, scientists found that this particular modification, which causes the plant to produce an insecticide internally, can have an environmental benefit because large-scale insecticide spraying can be avoided. Organisms such as ladybird beetles, earthworms, and bees in locales with “Bt crops” fared better in field trials than those within locales treated with chemical insecticides.

Read more from ScienceDaily.

What is kind of ironic about the whole genetic engineering/biotech controversy is that the same people who have problems with genetically modified crops often have no problem with the concept of manufacturing embryos to use their stem cells for research to find “cures” for diseases or conditions - which is essentially genetic engineering on a human level. California is a good example of that kind of thinking, where they want to ban farmers from planting GM strawberries, while at the same time provide taxpayer dollars for embryonic stem cell research.

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