Americans Now Use More Corn for Fuel Than Food



When corn was first discovered as an alternative fuel to gasoline and other fossil fuels, it seemed like as easy a boon for the American economy and farmers at first as opening a garage door. Once it became practice though, new problems were presented. Corn was used as food for humans and animals, but having it used as a fuel would affect its use as a food. According to a new report, Americans now use more bushels of corn to make fuel than to feed humans.

Scientific American writes;

“For every 10 ears of corn that are grown in the United States today, only 2 are consumed directly by humans as food. The remaining 8 are used in almost equal shares for animal feed and for ethanol. And, for the 12 months from August 2011 to 2012, the U.S. biofuels industry used more corn for fuel than domestic farmers did for livestock feed – a first for the industry. This significant milestone in the shifting balance between crops for food versus fuel shows the impact of government subsidies for the biofuels industry. And, it could represent a tipping point in the conflict between food and fuel demand in the future.”

Corn has been used for more than human food for years now, as it has been used for animal feed and also used for a cooking oil and sweetener. This past year, American farmers used 5 billion bushels of corn for human and animal consumption and 5.05 billion bushels was used for fuel. This has had an effect on food prices. The price of corn reflects the prices of other foods, and food prices are already steadily on the rise. So this may put more strain on the poor as more corn is grown to fuel cars than to feed people.

The issue with corn ethanol goes into land use and incentives for farmers. There are already several tax incentives in place for farmers to grow corn, as shown in the documentary “King Corn” and other sources. The corn we grow today is produced in vast numbers, but the nutritional quality is not the same as the old crops and the land becomes quickly used up.

Corn seemed like a great fuel source in theory, but the reality is something quite different. Corn ethanol is actually not that great of a fuel source in that its emissions are not much better than fossil-fuel like gasoline, and it can even be worse in certain situations. This is especially the case if land-use issues and higher food prices on the poor are considered. Many would agree that corn ethanol has a more negative impact than any benefit, but corn ethanol continues to be a well-funded and growing industry.

The reason why corn is pushed as a fuel source is to have domestic ethanol from corn to compete with foreign markets like the sugarcane one from Brazil. Several Congress members are trying to change this so that corn is used for food instead. This is hoped to be accomplished through eliminating tax incentives that boost domestic ethanol production through subsidies and import tariffs. Senators John Thune (R-SD), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are the Congress members who are trying to change this.

There is a need for fuel, but there are other alternatives that are being researched that will have a far better result than corn. While many of us are very familiar with the concepts of conserving and making our current uses more efficient, these practices cannot be stressed enough. With conservation as a common practice and the research coming up with better fuel sources, we can help to plan a better, healthier future that also assures a steady food supply.

Source: Scientific American | Image: Gas Pump via Shutterstock

About the Author

is a green and general blog writer. He also maintains a personal cooking blog. Find Chris on Google
  • clark

    I do not support ethanol subsidies, but this article is inaccurate.

    30%-plus of the corn feedstock for ethanol is returned as a co-product — distillers grain. Distillers grain is then used as feed for food (livestock).

    Correct numbers:
    6.5 billion bushels – food
    3.5 billion bushels – ethanol

    You could further add the 1.5 – 2 billion bushels of corn we export for food to the 6.5 number.

    • @ clark

      Very interesting indeed. Can you point us to a source for this information? Odd that they would leave that out….

      • I can’t say why it’s been left out, but ethanol production does leave by-products used as food (either directly as corn syrups, or else indirectly as feedstock). SO, even corn that is harvested “for” ethanol produces food – there is no 100% conversion (dissenters can take that up with Newton). 🙂

      • clark

        You can find estimates of 16 -18 pounds of distillers grain as an ethanol co-product from 56 pounds of corn (one bushel) all over.

        But your comment prompted me to look at actual production of distillers grain. This Iowa State source estimated 2011 production of 1,162 million bushels (equivalent) on 5,020 million bushels of corn for ethanol (very close to 5.05 billion number used in article above):
        (PDF warning)

        That is only a 23% return of co-product, versus the 30% theoretical.

        Using the 1.162 billion for distillers grain:
        6.2 billion bushels – food
        3.9 billion bushels – ethanol

        Not counting exports of corn. And again, not a supporter of ethanol subsidies or mandates.

    • Spot on.

  • “Corn has been used for more than human food for years now, as it has been used for … a cooking oil and sweetener.”

    These are still food uses.

    One could even argue that corn used as livestock feed is at least spent in the service of providing people with food.

    Doesn’t take away from the point about burning it for fuel, though.

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