Midwestern farmers want government payments when ethanol plants default. Instead, farm supports should look to the future. Instead of just supporting corn ethanol, a highly inefficient use of corn, farmers and politicians should be planning and planting for the next generation of ethanol production.
It’s not from corn. It’s from switchgrass. This native plant grows on marginal lands and requires far less management, water, fertilizer, and energy than corn to produce a more economical, better fuel. The resulting fuel is also cleaner and about three times more cost-effective than corn ethanol, according to a recent Univ. of Minnesota report.
A year ago University of Nebraska-Department of Agriculture researchers reported the superior results of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass instead of corn. Cellulosic ethanol produces 540% more energy than is used for its manufacture, whereas corn ethanol makes scarcely more energy than it uses. Soon afterwards, Senators Nelson (D-NE) and Thune (R-SD) began pushing for funding for farmers to grow switchgrass while local refineries were being built. Recently a study funded by General Motors and Sandia National Labs estimated that cellulosic ethanol could provide about 25% of American auto fuel by 2030.
Moving towards this kind of fuel and manufacture would support farmers in growing corn for food on good lands and switchgrass on poorer soils. Midwestern states, and the rest of the country, would benefit environmentally and economically by moving from corn to cellulosic ethanol, and so would farmers.