Biofuels: Man versus Beast

It’s arguably one of the most controversial subjects in agriculture….biofuels. More specifically; the use of corn for ethanol. If you mention it to a corn grower, it’s the best thing that ever happened to farming. The use of corn for ethanol is largely the culprit for $6.00 a bushel, and above, corn. If you mention it to a livestock producer, the reaction is opposite.

Dr. Ron Heiniger, NC State Extension corn specialist, sees the good that domestic ethanol production has done:

“Well, I mean I’ve generally been in favor of biofuel production. I mean, I think we look at where we’ve been, we’ve had a lot of excess corn production and over the years they’ve developed some really efficient techniques for extracting biofuels from corn, and of course we’re looking at some other crops to fill that need. I really think that biofuels have been a success in the most in reducing our need for foreign oil and helping keep costs down as far as energy prices.”

Currently 40% of the American corn production goes into ethanol.

Dan Campeau, area specialized poultry agent with NC State Extension based in Chatham County sees the potential long-range consequences of government incentives for the production of ethanol:

“What’s going on, in like the last five years, three of the five of the big poultry companies that I work with…when you get above $5 a bushel on corn, the profit margins of those companies go way down, and they have a hard time making a profit or a living in the United States. So, right now, any time it gets above $5 or $6 a bushel, it’s almost too expensive to use for animal feed.

And what I’m saying is that what scares me, if this keeps happening and the government has policies that artificially increases the price of corn and grains that can be used for human food consumption that basically what’s going to happen is that once these houses and farms age out, instead of rebuilding new ones and staying in the United States I think in the next 20 years you’ll see a migration to South America and Mexico.”

Campeau feels that the solution is simple:

“I think the biggest issue to me, is that it needs to be looked at in such a way that you’re using marginal lands that can only grow grass and forages and stuff, and using those forages, you know other things than corn. In other words, like if it’s a crop that you have to use high-quality arable soils to grow it, it shouldn’t be going into a by-product use like ethanol production.”

Which was the original plan when biofuel subsidies were implemented. Just how the industry migrated to high-quality corn is somewhat fuzzy:

“The whole process of that ethanol tax incentive was to actually try to use by-products of agriculture to put into ethanol production. What it actually morphed into is a way to take prime farmland, grow corn on it, and put it in your gas tank instead of putting it in people’s stomachs.”

Heiniger feels that moderation is the key in using corn for ethanol:

“There’s a lot of strong opinions on both sides of the thing, even among scientists, and that’s unfortunate. Anything in moderation is probably got a fit, but when you go whole hog, or go one way or another I think that often times creates problems, and I think we did go way too wild in building ethanol plants based on corn.”

The fear is just as Campeau mentioned, that livestock production, especially poultry will migrate south of the US border, to country’s that don’t have the stringent phytosanitary regulations observed in the US, increasing the risk of food-borne illness and the potential for bioterrorism.

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