Gas tanks could guzzle half of U.S. corn yields

In his Jan. 23 State of the Union Address, President Bush called for ramping up production of biofuels, such as ethanol from corn, to help cut U.S. dependency on foreign oil. A new report describes an ethanol-industry expansion already under way that is poised to boost corn-ethanol production by 160 percent within 2 years.

However, such an increase may carry a high cost, says the report’s author, agricultural economist Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

The 116 existing U.S. ethanol-fuel distilleries now use 53 million tons of corn. The 90 distilleries under or planned for construction would boost that demand to 139 million metric tons of corn, half of the projected 2008 U.S. harvest.

U.S. farmers produce 40 percent of the world’s corn and export 55 million tons. Brown argues that any change in the crop’s availability for food and feed will propel world grain prices—including those of wheat and rice—”to levels never seen before.” He explains, “These three crops compete for much of the same land.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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