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Published May 23, 2011, 09:12 AM

Heading back to the food, fiber and fuel future?

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The current high prices and projections of low carry-over stocks have rekindled the food vs. fuel debate. The ethanol industry, directly, and corn farmers, indirectly, will face increasing calls for lowering the renewable fuels mandate and a reduction in or elimination of the blenders tax credit.

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer,

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The current high prices and projections of low carry-over stocks have rekindled the food vs. fuel debate. The ethanol industry, directly, and corn farmers, indirectly, will face increasing calls for lowering the renewable fuels mandate and a reduction in or elimination of the blenders tax credit. With planting problems this spring, or weather and pollination problems this summer, the pressure for change will intensify.

As we listen to this debate, the implied assumption is that the sole purpose of farming is to provide food, and certainly, that has been true for more than half a century. But if we look back at the 19th century, a different, more complicated picture confronts us. At that time, most farms had a woodlot that provided firewood for the farm household and maybe some to sell to townspeople.

In addition, the farm had a significant amount of its land dedicated to pastureland to provide food — energy — for the animals that were used to pull the implements used in farming and to pull the buggies, wagons and sleighs that were used to go to town, school and church. The draft animals also were fed oats and hay that was grown on the farm. Even the addition of steam tractors did little to change this structure as they were usually fueled with firewood.

Times change

But the introduction of the fossil fueled — oil, diesel and gas — tractor was a game changer. Though the early models may have been exasperating to deal with, they were easier to take care of than draft animals. And, they could cover a lot more ground in a day.

Converting farm ground that once was used for energy production into cropland increased farm income so that by the end of World War II, farmers rapidly were getting rid of their draft animals. As a result, most of the land was used either as pasture and hay ground for meat and milk production or as additional cropland. The conversion was complete and farms were places engaged in food production with energy being produced by oil wells, natural gas wells, coal mines, hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants.

As we know, low crop prices in the late 1990s greatly stimulated farmer interest in developing ethanol plants as a way to gain income by further processing a raw commodity as well as reduce the oversupply in the market that kept crop prices in the basement for four years. By the 2006 to ’07 period, the oversupply of grain of the late ’90s and first couple years of the 21st century vanished as increased numbers of ethanol plants began to come online. To compound things, crop productions outside the U.S. reduced supplies of grains

Looking back

Recently we ran across a paper and presentation by researchers at Michigan State University that suggest that we can return to a 19th-century view of farming — our term, not theirs — as a place that produces food, fiber and fuel but to fuel vehicles, not horses:

The authors argue that the further addition of fuel to agriculture’s output configuration can be done with a more “efficient” use of existing agricultural resources; and with the use of appropriate technology could decrease carbon dioxide emission and increase the carbon content of soils.

They note that most agricultural land in the U.S. is “used for animal feed, NOT direct human consumption.”

They assert that “cropland is currently not used efficiently; we actually have more than enough land.”

Their solution is to identify new technologies for animal feed and improved productivity of land.

The researchers consider several new technologies as a part of their analysis: “ammonia fiber expansion pretreatment to produce highly digestible (by ruminants) cellulosic biomass and leaf protein concentrate production.”

Without going into details, these technologies produce both animal feeds (that meet the “three feed requirements — digestible energy (calories), protein and rough fiber”) and feedstock for cellulosic production from corn grain, corn stover and cellulosic biomass crops. They also plan on the double cropping of about one-third of the land.

Using these technologies, their analysis shows that, in the U.S., we can produce ethanol that meets 80 percent of the energy equivalent of imported oil while producing the same amount of animal feed now consumed in the U.S.

Editor’s Note: Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy at Institute of Agriculture, at the University of Tennessee, and is the director of the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.

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