To ensure there's enough corn to fuel humans as well as vehicles, scientists are urging more research into boosting corn yields and improving ethanol production.
Many key issues related to expanding the nation's ethanol industry aren't being studied under current government programs, said Kenneth G. Cassman, director of the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"It's the core issue to ensuring that we don't come up short in food supply, and don't have high consumer prices, and can still maintain expansion of the ethanol industry," he said.
Cassman is co-author of "Convergence of Agriculture and Energy: Implications for Research and Policy," a study released Tuesday by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, an international consortium of 38 scientific and professional societies.
"The main thing that we all have to be aware of is the complexity of the feed, food and fuel interaction, and how policy and research have to be conducted in a very conscientious fashion, or we are going to have ourselves out of balance," said John M. Bonner, director of the Iowa-based consortium.
Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, and a vocal opponent of ethanol, said many of the poorest countries around the world that use corn as a food staple will have to compete for supplies gobbled up by ethanol production. They'll also pay more because of increases in corn prices, which he said have climbed 40 percent this year.
For U.S. consumers, Brown said, the price of animal products — meat, eggs, cheese and dairy products — will increase if livestock operations have to pay more for feed. "We used to have a food economy and an energy economy. Now you can't draw a line between them anymore," he said.
Since January 2001, U.S. ethanol production has grown dramatically, climbing from 1.7 billion gallons to 4.8 billion gallons in June 2006, according to the report.
"Some in the corn industry believe it will be possible to produce 16 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015 while also meeting corn grain requirements for human food and livestock feed," the report said.
But in some areas, including northwestern Iowa, the ethanol industry is already using up much of the available corn, Bonner said. In turn, that can pressure the livestock industry. "It puts quite a strain on the livestock industry ... because of the amounts they can use and the sensitivity to corn price," he said.
A byproduct of ethanol production called distiller's grains can be used as feed, but experts say it isn't the best source of food for some livestock, including poultry and swine.
Other considerations, the scientists say, are the effects of ethanol production on the economy and the environment. "We have abruptly entered a new era for agriculture that no one predicted," Cassman said. "That is an era where the value of agriculture and its commodities are being determined more by the price of energy than by the value of commodities for food or feedstock."
Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers, said the industry is very aware of the food versus fuel debate, "but believe it is a false choice."
"American farmers can and will do both," he said. "There is a lot of room for growth in the corn-to-ethanol industry, as the National Corn Growers have pointed out."