There has been considerable conversation in the mass media concerning the corn crop and prices.
Many agricultural economists believe commodity supply and demand affect prices.
For generations, farmers have focused on corn as one of the most significant farm commodities in the U.S. Farmers used to follow corn markets primarily because of the crops' value for feeding livestock and people.
More recently the mass media has also focused on corn as a significant commodity to be aware of. One reason for this more recent attention is the vast amount of energy being produced using corn as the main ingredient.
Society has just begun to tap new renewable sources of energy from agriculture and forestlands on a commercial scale that impacts energy markets.
Among these sources are biofuels, a small but important component of current fuel consumption in the U.S. transport sector.
In 2012, biofuels accounted for roughly 7 percent of total transport fuel consumption, or 13.8 billion gallons.
Ethanol, made mostly from corn starch, is by far the most significant biofuel in the United States, accounting for 94 percent of all biofuel production in 2012.
Most of the remainder is biodiesel, made from vegetable oils (chiefly soybean oil) as well as animal fats, waste oils and greases.
In 1993, the U.S. produced roughly 1 billion gallons of corn ethanol using 5 percent of a 9-million-bushel corn supply.
By 2012, we had produced roughly 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol using 42 percent of a 12-million-bushel corn supply.
In the 20 years of growing ethanol production, the U.S. has increased the corn harvest by 33 percent.
This increase in corn production likely would not have occurred without the simultaneous increasing demand for energy production.
The current amount of corn used for energy production is approximately equal to the amount used for animal feed and human food.
Some people worry about the amount of corn being used for energy production.
Their main concern seems to be the loss of nutrients that could be used to feed livestock, which in turn feed humans.
It should be noted all of the 42 percent of the corn harvest used for ethanol is not lost to the food chain.
Fully one-third of the volume of corn going into ethanol production returns as dried distillers grain, an excellent feed source for livestock and often used in many livestock rations.
The remaining one-third of the corn input comes back to us as carbon dioxide. This gas has many uses, including carbonating soft drinks, industrial cooling and freezing, pulmonary testing, welding, paper and chemical production and greenhouse growing of crops.
Some conversion factors, which may help us understand and discuss corn energy production, include:
·1 bushel of corn yields 2.7 gallons of ethanol
·1 bushel of corn yields 17.5 pounds of DDGS
·1 barrel = 42 gallons
·1 gallon of ethanol contains the same energy as 0.66 gallons of gasoline
·1 gasoline-equivalent gallon of ethanol = 1.33 gallons of ethanol
As world population continues to expand, there are more hungry people to feed.
In order to meet the growing demand for energy, and feed ourselves, a next generation of bioenergy technology is evolving.
This technology does not use food grade materials to generate liquid fuels.
It uses cellulose materials that do not directly compete with feeding animals or humans.
Roughly 60 million gallons of production capacity exists today for this next generation of biofuel production technology.
Providing adequate nutrition for everyone and also providing adequate energy can be a challenge.
Meeting this challenge will involve us all.
For today, many of our local farmers are doing their part to ensure current challenges are being addressed as we pursue a positive future that includes meeting both food and energy needs.
John Berry is the agricultural marketing educator for Penn State Extension, Lehigh County.