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.
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?