Rising efficiency seen shrinking areas needed for corn production

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, June 9, 2014

Expanses of farmland needed to provide corn for ethanol will likely decrease as crop production becomes more efficient, Illinois researchers say in a study released this week.

As new technologies allow farmers to harvest more corn per acre, the amount of farmland needed to meet U.S. ethanol needs could drop to as low as 11 percent by 2026, down from about 25 percent, the study says. The figure takes into account animal feed byproducts generated in the ethanol production process.The study provides a “clear picture” on land use for ethanol production in the United States, said Rita Mumm, co-author and a crop science professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“It’s no surprise to the agriculture industry that yield improvements will drive down land used for ethanol,” Mumm said in a statement. “However, the mechanisms within the production complex, especially their effects on one another, were not fully understood.”

Numerous studies have shown that farmers have increasingly planted corn over the last few years as ethanol demand has increased due to the renewable fuel standard (Greenwire, Feb. 21, 2013).

About 40 percent the corn harvested in the United States today is for ethanol production.

The study released Tuesday in Illinois uses a smaller number of 25 percent to represent the amount of corn acres going toward ethanol production. That figure takes into account animal feed produced as a byproduct of the ethanol production process that makes its way back to livestock producers.

According to the researchers, that percentage will drop to as low as 11 percent and as high as 19 percent by 2026 because of higher expected corn yields and the cap of 15 billion gallons that the renewable fuel standard sets on corn ethanol use by next year. Corn yields could increase by almost two-thirds by 2026 due to new planting technologies and biotechnology, the study says.

The analysis, however, found a tradeoff between land use and increased efficiencies at the ethanol plant itself. More efficient plants will lead to more ethanol produced per acre of corn planted but could reduce the amount of animal feed byproduct that comes out the other end of the process.

“Moving forward, science must weigh anticipated technological changes to fully understand trends in land use,” Mumm said. “Technology has a huge bearing on actual results as we’ve shown.”

The Illinois Corn Growers’ Association and Illinois Corn Marketing Board, an association funded by growers to promote corn, funded the study. The results were published online in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels.

“Higher productivity levels will trigger new challenges and opportunities that run the gamut from altering the amount of acres we plant with corn to thoughtfully shaping the markets for its use, which includes ethanol and feed, among others,” said Gary Hudson, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.