Over the next three months, more than 90 million acres of corn will grow tall, tassel, grow ears and then die. Only a handful of people will even notice or even care. Most Americans will fly past a field of corn at 70 mph never really seeing what is there. A few may pause from their texting and wonder why we grow so much corn. On the whole, however, most Americans are clueless about the important role that corn plays in their lives and in their futures.
Corn, or Maize to the rest of the world, has played a very important role in human history — mostly as a food source for humans and animals. The development of the modern US corn industry has been primarily as a protein source for livestock. In the past few decades, we have begun to think of corn as an energy as well as protein source. Currently, most of the gasoline sold in the US contains 10% corn ethanol. Corn is now moving into the biodiesel market with many ethanol plants now extracting the oil from corn for use in diesel fuel. Despite the considerable efforts of big oil companies and radical environmentalists — (an interesting alliance) — to stop the growth of corn-based renewable energy, the US is moving toward making corn part of its energy portfolio.
But corn may have an even bigger role to play in our nation’s future, a role that has nothing to do with protein or gasoline. At the National Corn Utilization Conference last week in Indianapolis, some of the top corn researchers in the country were all a twitter about the new potential for corn.
Dr. Mike Ladisch from Purdue, said the next big role for corn will be as a raw material for chemicals. According to Ladisch, “Corn is an excellent source of very pure sugars and starches.” He said, with the advances we have seen in biochemical and chemical engineering, there are a wide variety of new products that can be made from these sugars and starches. He noted that chemicals companies are not looking at corn as a plant but rather as a biological chemical producing factory capable of producing a large, economical, and renewable source of chemicals raw materials. He added that corn will begin to replace petroleum in many industrial and manufactured products.
Does this mean another competitor for our corn supply? Ladisch said no, because many of these chemical processes will be byproducts of existing corn processing activities. What this does mean is that the value of the corn crop will increase and the importance of corn production in the Midwest will grow.
Former Purdue Ag Dean and Word Bank executive Bob Thompson once told me the Corn Belt states of the Midwest are uniquely suited with the right soil and climate to grow corn. No other region in the world can produce corn as efficiently and in greater quantities than the US Midwest. In the future, the world will be demanding more food, energy, and industrial raw materials, and corn will be able to play in all those markets. So in the next 50 years, the Corn Belt states of the Midwest will be as important as OPEC is today. Our weather, planting decisions, and crop conditions will make headlines and move world markets. That may help you feel a bit better about that farm ground you just bought for $10,000 an acre.
by Gary Truitt