Food versus Fuel Diverting Grain from Food to Fuel

Most of the crop commodity substitution of food for fuel has involved corn. The U.S. grain sector, which includes corn, sorghum, barley, and oats, is the largest segment of U.S. fi eld crops, representing nearly one-third of all cash crop receipts, nearly one-third of area planted to crops, and about one-tenth of the U.S. export value. Corn represents the vast majority of these cash crops, and the loss of corn from food available production to fuel available production suggests serious competition—until you look at the structure of corn production and disposition.

Although corn ethanol represents only 3% of the U.S. fuel use, corn for eth-anol has increased sixfold over the last three years. Since 1980, use of corn for ethanol has increased from 0.9 million metric tonnes to over 55 million metric tonnes in 2006, and it is projected to increase to over 275 million metric tonnes in 2015 (USDA/ERS 2009a, b). As a result, the price of corn has risen greatly and land allocation in some areas has changed. For example, much of the increase has come from taking land out of the Conservation Reserve Program and reclaiming idle land (Hart 2006); a lesser portion stems from increasing yields and altered rotation. Another fraction has come at the expense of food available corn, as it is traded from food markets to fuel markets.

A closer examination of the specific nature of corn food markets reveals, however, a vastly different view of food than is conventionally defined (Table 23.3). In 2006, the total corn produced in the U.S. was 300 million metric tonnes (Malcom and Aillery 2009; USDA/ERS 2009a).

The production of food from corn amounts to about 14% of the final use for corn. When one includes food in milk and meat, food utilization increases to about 60%. Only two categories have increased since 1980s—food for sugars and starch and ethanol—and these are projected to continue increasing in the future (USDA/ERS 2009b.)

Recent examination of changes in the source areas for ethanol suggests that the land allocated to feed has decreased due to rising prices of grain for feed cattle; the largest livestock producers to be hurt by this shift are dairy farms.

Table 23.3 Disposition of corn in U.S. agriculture (Malcom and Aillery 2009; USDA/ ERS 2009a).


Quantity (million metric tonnes)



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