Guest Commentary: Corn is food and fuel

Guest Commentary: Corn is food and fuel

By GARY LUTH

In the April 16 edition of The News-Gazette, a guest commentary appeared entitled "Corn is for food, not fuel." This article contained several assertions that, in my opinion, were either based on outdated data or simply not factual. The following offers a different viewpoint.

Assertion one: "ethanol does not reduce greenhouse gases or lower emissions from automobiles vs. straight gasoline." Fact: A 2016 study released by USDA: "Life Cycle Analysis of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Corn-Based Ethanol" finds just the opposite. This study finds that US corn-based ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by an estimated 43 percent compared to gasoline. This study looked at the actual performance of the entire ethanol production system over the last decade rather than using future projections which have proven to be very inaccurate. The report finds greater lifecycle GHG benefits to more efficient production methods by farmers as well as ethanol processors. For example, per-acre corn yields have increased 10 percent over the last decade while using reduced tillage, cover crops, and more efficient utilization of nitrogen fertilizers. At the same time, new technologies at ethanol refineries are allowing more ethanol production from each bushel of corn while using less energy.

Assertion two: "the ethanol mandate causes corn to be grown on marginal land and destroys wildlife habitat." Fact: Corn was planted on 93.5 million acres in the US during 2007. The estimated planted corn acreage for the U.S. for 2017 is 90 million acres. Thus, a 3 million-acre reduction in corn acreage over a decade rather than the assertions that millions more acres of environmentally fragile lands would be planted to corn in order to supply the ethanol mandate.

Assertion three: "corn prices have increased due to ethanol production." Fact: In 2007, the United States produced 9.3 billion gallons of ethanol with an average corn price of near $5 per bushel. In 2016, the U.S. produced 15.3 billion gal of ethanol with an average corn price of $3.50 per bushel. Thus, we had a 39 percent increase in ethanol production over the decade accompanied with a 30 percent reduction in corn prices.

Assertion four: "Domestic food prices would fall if corn prices declined." Fact: Average corn prices have declined over the last decade as shown above. I wonder how many consumers feel like their food prices have decreased 30 percent in the last decade. The fact is that only 17 cents of each dollar spent on food is attributable to the underlying raw food product. The balance of the food dollar goes toward processing, advertising and retailing.

Assertion five: "Removing the ethanol mandate would create jobs in the oil and gas industry." Fact: Without ethanol, gasoline would still require some type of octane enhancer and at this point ethanol is the cheapest most environmentally friendly product available. The author seems to only be interested in creating jobs in the oil and gas industry and have no concern for the job displacement and reduced economic activity that would occur should Illinois agriculture lose 40 percent of its market for corn.

Most experts agree that agriculture in Illinois is one of the top three economic activity generators in the state. Net farm income in Illinois has been decreasing for the last four years and our small rural communities are struggling to survive. Removal of the ethanol mandate would only increase the speed and severity of these trends. I'm not one to pit one industry against another but in this situation, it seems that agriculture and the people of Illinois have much more to lose from the removal of the ethanol mandate than the oil industry has to gain.

Gary Luth is a fifth-generation farmer growing his 47th crop and was chosen as the 2006 News-Gazette Farm Leader of the year.

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