Food vs Fuel: Beyond the Corn Field

Food versus Fuel is a phrase that’s heard a lot when talking about ethanol generated from corn.  I’m not going to rehash that whole debate here because I’ve covered it in other posts, but basically know that corn made in to ethanol also produces animal feed in the process.  When you hear that upwards of 50% of the 2012 US corn crop is going to ethanol production that’s misleading because the feed portion hasn’t been accounted for.

Generally when people think of agriculture they think of food production, but it’s much more than that.  Using plants and cropland to produce something other than food is not a new idea, but you never hear about the Food vs Candles debate.  Ever heard someone complain that you’ve been wearing jeans when you could have gone pant-less and let someone else eat?  Let’s see what we can make from some popular crops that doesn’t involve feeding ourselves.


Over 13 million acres of cotton were planted in the United States in 2011.  It’s not hard to think of uses for cotton.  You’re probably wearing some right now.  There might be some in your drapes, sheets, and pillow cases.  We even make money out of it for goodness sake, and you’re certainly aren’t eating that in this economy.  My friend Janice has a whole series on cotton that you should check out.


It might be easier to list the things that can’t be made from soybeans that aren’t food.  One many may not think about that works for all crops would be seed.  We grow a few hundred acres of seed beans on our farm every year for other farmers to grow the following year.

What else can we get out of a soybean?  How about the foam in the seats of a Ford Mustang.  More inedible uses include the football field at Kansas State, biodiesel (Ah! Food vs Fuel!), candles, non-toxic crayons, environmentally friendly ink, adhesives, lubricants, all kinds of health and beauty products.  The oil in soybeans has almost endless uses and can be used in place of petroleum products in many circumstances.


Yes even wheat doesn’t always get eaten.  I actually wasn’t aware how versatile wheat was until I did a little research.  Kansas Wheat gives a host of non-food uses like adhesives, packing peanuts, plastic bags, insulation, cosmetics and more.  Our local ethanol plant took wheat orders for a week last summer because they could buy wheat cheaper than corn at the time.  Straw has been used as a construction material for centuries gathered from wheat and other sources.


Corn too gets its fair share of inedible use outside of being a fuel source.  The National Corn Growers Association has a great graphic for the many uses of corn.  Some of the more interesting uses include liquid spill recovery media, book bindings, incendiary compounds (that’s news to me), surgical dressings, soap, makeup, shoe polish, and floor wax.

NCGA Corn Use Poster

So you can see that humans have been using plants for uses other than food and feed for thousands of years, and we’re still coming up with new ones all the time.  Again, this is not a new idea.  And many of the items I listed can come from the same bushel much like ethanol and animal feed.  An acre of soybeans doesn’t have to be fish food or hair conditioner.  It could be both.  We are just using the resources available to improve quality of life and frankly to  increase market share with competing products.  In my opinion a little competition doesn’t hurt.  In fact we’re all better off in the end when things get better and cheaper.  What do you think?  Does the VS argument still stand?

About Brian

Farming 2300 acres of corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat with my father and grandfather in Northwest Indiana.
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19 Responses to Food vs Fuel: Beyond the Corn Field

  1. Mike Haley says:

    It’s not an issue of food vs. Fuel. If we are going to meet the needs of a growing community sustainably we need to learn how to grow both our food and fuel in the future.

    • Brian says:

      It is an issue for a lot of people it seems. I’d just like to point out that it’s not. Although you could argue that ethanol increases demand for corn, making feed prices higher.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The real problem is the fact that the RFS forces ethanol to be blended into the fuel supply rather than the market driving demand for ethanol. No one is forced to buy the other products you mention…the consumer does not have a mandate to buy shoe polish made from corn. The food versus fuel debate will disappear when the mandate to blend ethanol disappears.

    • Brian says:

      You’re right. The subsidy has ended, but the mandate is still in effect. My personal general statement for government getting involved in markets of any kind is that they should get out of the way. To me it would make more sense to do something like give a tax break to an industry. Take less of their money to help them get off the ground vs giving them a fraction on everyone else’s.

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree with that…a tax break would make sense. I think the problem the RFS created for the livestock industry in general was underestimated and the value of DDGS was overestimated (especially in the poultry industry). It takes a long time for the meat industry in particular to pass on price increases necessary to cover $6.00+ corn and $400 soybean meal. Passing that cost on can’t happen over night and generally involves a contraction in the supply of meat in order to make it possible. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that demand for meat has fallen 12% since 2007…

        • Brian says:

          Coincidentally I just came across this link going through some news items.

          I’ve been thinking about writing a similar post for some time and just haven’t gotten around to it. The wind turbine industry is worried about losing a bunch of jobs if their subsidy runs out. This state and federal money handicaps these businesses from the start, because they are operating with a safety net.

        • Mike Haley says:

          While the blenders credit has some effect on the amount of ethanol produced its not what is driving the amount of ethanol produced in the US. The largest consumer of US produced ethanol in 2011 was Brazil, a country that is not using any Fossil Fuels for transportation.

          One may wonder why they are using so much US corn ethanol when its much more efficient to produce cane ethanol. This is where it comes full circle, the growing trend in the US is to use less corn sugar and replace it with natural cane and beet sugars making it more profitable for Brazil to produce sugar out of their sugarcane instead of cane ethanol. In turn the corn that would have been used for HFCS is now finding its way to an export market as ethanol.

          As far as the statement that the demand for meat has fallen by 12% since 2007, that is a domestic number as last year was a demand year for beef across the US as we were exporting both hamburger and high dollar beef cuts compared to most years we only export steak and other high dollar beef cuts. If the US did not have such a high export market last year my guess would be that the 12% decrease in consumption would have actually been an increase in beef consumption last year as we would have had a large surplus and beef protein would have been a bargain.

  3. Americans may have cut back on meat consumption but they are not going hungry and are not starving to death. We are losing American soldiers protecting oil interests. I think we can do both. We can supply Americas need for food and fuel. Energy independence is important for our nations future.

  4. Barrows Farm says:

    The thing to remember is that fuels can be produced through residues as well from the food chain cycle. Using residues may not create the tonnage but different variations of production and the end consumer will still create a usable energy product.
    Cellulistic Ethanol is looking promising in the value of production but let’s not forget that there are still acres out that in different regions of the US that are currently not into any type of production either.
    I agree that energy supplied from within our own borders is extremely important for many different factors. As we have all seen, depending on foreign imports ultimately has an impact on everyone’s pocket.
    With new upcoming technologies that will make liquid and gas fuels easier and cheaper to produce, that ultimately means that the prices will start lowering as stock piles start growing. Too many of us forget that part of the cycle.
    At least with fuels, whether it is liquid, gas or solid fuels, we could all benefit from advancements to 1. reduce the waste stream 2. improve and utilize our environment without destroying it and 3. become energy independent from foreign countries….oh and let’s not forget about increasing the number of jobs through economic development.
    How did I do Brian?

    • Brian says:

      Not bad. I think one thing that people don’t take into account with biofuels is that it’s not a static technology. Just like anything else it gets more efficient and cheaper all the time. There are even things that can be done of the combustion side of the equation by auto makers than can make things better.

  5. Brian, you do realize that VEETEC was a tax credit and not a subsidy?

  6. Michael says:

    The main reason the ethanol mandate was started was environmental, so many have forgotten that. Ethanol in gasoline makes it burn cleaner thus reducing tailpipe emissions. The reduction in smog in many cities has made them livable again. Big oils response to smog was MBTE which was proven to be a long term pollutant. Ethanol burns cleaner and helps our gasoline engines burn cleaner.
    Despite the loss of VEETEC, we are producing more ethanol than the mandate. Some for export, but when gasoline prices get high, oil companies still blend in ethanol to reduce the cost of gasoline at the pump.

    • Brian says:

      From what I understand the loss of VEETC hasn’t had much impact on the production side, and the expiration was a long time coming and not unexpected.

  7. Brian says:

    I’m not surprised this has become a discussion about fuels based on my title, but that wasn’t really my intention! Oh well, I’m game for good discussion no matter where it takes us. Carry on!

  8. Arjun Jadeja says:

    As Mike says,keeping in view community sustainability,we can grow both,food and fuel.And Barrows Farms points out that fuel can also be produced from residues from the food chain.In India we produce sugar,ethanol and electricity from sugarcane.New research is going on so that the fuel production does infringe upon the food production.But I am with you on this one,because it will mean better returns for the Farmers.

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