Record corn plantings and ethanol hopes
by Julie LE COZ & Nicolas TREVILLOT
Why are Americans planning to plant more corn this year than they have since the Second World War? The rising demand for ethanol (rather than a renewed culinary interest in corn on the cob) is the answer.
At the end of March, the United States Department of Agriculture (USAD) forecasted that Americans farmers would plant 90.5 million acres of corn, a 15% increase from last year and the highest figure since 1944. The rush to plant corn naturally comes at the cost of other crops. Nationwide, soybeans are forecast at 67.1 million acres (the smallest seeded area since 1996), and rice at 2.64 million acres (the smallest seeded area since 1987).
This corn craze is directly linked to the rising demand for ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive. As the war on greenhouse gas emissions fuelled the demand for ethanol, corn prices doubled in the last year, with prices rising above $4 a bushel in some futures markets.
The Bush administration welcomes this trend and encourages Americans to produce and use nationally-produced ethanol through various fiscal incentives. It hopes ethanol will help to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.
However, weaning Americans from their oil-addiction might take some time...
There are only 114 ethanol distilleries currently in operation across the country. Out of 170, 000 gas stations, only about 1,000 sell E85, which is a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. This means there is about one such station for each 1,2 million Americans. In California, which has more cars and trucks on the road than any other state, there are only four ethanol stations.
Hybrid cars are currently still a minority interest in the US. Today there are about five million flex-fuel cars on American highways. But by 2012, half the vehicles made by Chrysler, Ford and General Motors could be able to run on bio-diesel or E85.
It remains to be seen whether ethanol is truly an environmentally friendly energy source, or whether it is just a sop to our consciences. Corn is a needy plant and is very hard on soil. It also requires more synthetic nitrogen and more petroleum-based pesticides than most other farm crops, thus causing severe air and water pollution. Moreover, corn-based ethanol releases less energy than standard gasoline, so that engines must use more ethanol than gas to go the same distance. Ethanol could substitute for a small percentage of imported fossil fuel, but it is far from being an all-green energy source.
"Ethanol still a long way off In U.S," Los Angeles Times 10 March 2007.
"U.S farmers aim for record corn crop, ethanol riches," The Washington Post 30 March 2007.
"Ethanol demand boosts corn plantings," Chicago Tribune 30 March 2007.
"Record corn planting forecast for Illinois," Chicago Tribune 30 March 2007.
"US farmers plan biggest corn plantings since 1944," Chicago Tribune 30 March 2007.
"Farmers to plant largest amount of corn since '44," New York Times 31 March 2007.
"The ethanol solution," CBS News 7 May 2006.
"Global warming threatens - corn - based ethanol not solution," Aberdeen News 4 March 2007.