Choose food or fuel? No, we can produce both

The choice is not between food production or ethanol, the choice is between pursuing a proven alternative energy source or continuing our reliance on foreign oil and hoping for the best.
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Sparked by aggressive ethanol mandates by the government, the debate over whether the U.S. can produce enough corn to meet the demand for both food and fuel continues to grow. As American farmers grapple with the reality of the demands that these goals place on production, they have often been met with heightened negative rhetoric. These critics, including the Earth Policy Institute, assert that using more crops for ethanol will lead to shortages of corn and other commodities for food use.

While these concerns are certainly understandable, they are unsupported by the facts. When you look at the numbers on American agriculture production, the choice is not food or fuel; it is between greater energy independence and economic growth here at home and the continued reliance on foreign oil.

For the past 35 years, our agricultural production has grown at an average rate of 1.8 percent per year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A key to this growth, according to the USDA study, is the astonishing advances made to improve corn through biotechnology.

In 2005, America's corn farmers produced an average yield of 147.9 bushels per acre. With the help of food and agriculture biotechnology, America's corn crops are poised for expansion, with per acre yield averages projected to reach 173 per acre by 2015. With new biotech corn hybrids in continual development, yields will only increase further.

By 2015, according to the National Corn Growers Association, grain production will continue to satisfy all food, animal feed and export demands with 5.95 billion bushels remaining for ethanol and bioproducts. So, quite simply, Americans will not have to choose between food and fuel.

Those 5.9 billion bushels of grain could conservatively produce 15 billion gallons of ethanol, or about 10 percent of our nation's expected gasoline demand. This level of production is due not only to agricultural biotechnology, but to the advances in industrial biotech that have made the production of ethanol more efficient.

The most exciting development in industrial biotechnology centers on developing production methods that will allow the use of the entire corn plant to produce ethanol. It's estimated using the entire corn plant, other crop residues and dedicated energy crops to produce fuel would yield more than 70 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Indeed, the announcement of a significant investment in commercial cellulose to ethanol production in Iowa this week is a significant step toward this goal.

With 101 ethanol biorefineries in operation and another 46 under development, we are ramping up domestic ethanol production. This investment must continue to significantly lower fuel prices, end our addiction to foreign oil and achieve domestic energy security.

With a mature ethanol industry, aided by advances in industrial biotechnology, farmers can continue to harvest and sell two crops from every field-one for food and one for fuel. The Natural Resources Defense Council says that this will provide a significant economic boost to America's heartland, creating new jobs and increasing farm income by $5 billion annually by 2025.

The choice is not between food production or ethanol, the choice is between pursuing a proven alternative energy source or continuing our reliance on foreign oil and hoping for the best. During the next several decades of this century, the partnership between agriculture and biotechnology will expand and improve ethanol production at every step, from the field, to the refinery, to delivery at the pump.

Along the way, we will also be moving toward a better future: one in which clean-burning, renewable energy improves our environment and national security; food continues to be healthful and plentiful; and our nation's farming communities enjoy robust prosperity.

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