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Biofuel from maize – Did economic reality mobilise a new political will?

November 2010

Dr Kobus Laubscher, Hoofbestuurder/CEO

It is becoming increasingly clearer that Grain SA’s arguments with regard to the utilisation of surplus maize via demand driven initiatives like reconsideration of the government’s biofuel strategy carry the weight that they deserve.

During the 2010 World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa (www.worldfoodprize.org), the application of technology in the improvement of production productivity as the only workable solution to hunger alleviation was once again stressed, but with the provision that the market must dictate. Not only was the importance of genetic manipulation in productivity improvement re-iterated, but the use of maize in the production of renewable fuel as a preferential market development was once again emphasised.

Arguments opposing grain for fuel were met with the following facts. By using maize for ethanol production, totally new products are actually unlocked that otherwise would not have been available to mankind. This unlocking of new products is the catalyst for added value that is underestimated, because only the starch of the maize kernel is utilised for fuel production, the rest contribute to a list of value added products that make and can make a real contribution to affordable food.

Two for the price of one is a really good motivation, because both food and fuel is achieved from the conversion process, versus the unprocessed grain/maize that is just food. A grain producer in Iowa who utilises his own grain as input into his feedlot could achieve the following.

Traditionally he used 75 bushels of maize to double the live mass of feedlot oxen. Currently he is using only between 11 and 15 bushels of maize plus the residue from the ethanol production process and other residues on his farm to produce the same live mass. His dependence on maize has reduced significantly without relinquishing efficiency in his feedlot and various other byproducts are also produced.

Additional value was unlocked without compromising the availability of a staple food. Current low producer prices make this reassessment necessary because during low supply periods the market for the use of maize for biofuels will guide the market in such a manner that the food demand will be satisfied.

Arguments against the utilisation of grain for fuel for instance that it would increase the prices of a staple food, are counterproductive. In the absence of an extended demand, such as a demand for maize for the production of renewable fuel, the economic viability of maize production is weakened. Without this demand, surplus production prices are driven down to levels that discourage production, which in the long term can land the country in trouble if sufficient maize is not produced.

The establishment of ethanol from maize plants now will benefit greatly from proven efficiency increases in ethanol production in recent times. New technology for this purpose, implemented in the USA, has over the past decade resulted in as much as 28% energy saving and a 32% reduction in the consumption of water in the production process.

Producers’ contribution to this process goes further than just higher yields – the ethanol yield per mass of maize has also increased dramatically as a result of improved cultivar selection. The most recent technology being developed is the so-called “defractioning” of the maize kernel with promises of improved economy from additional products if the methodology of processing is improved.

Grain producers thus correctly argue that with prices at a better level, they will be able to look after themselves to feed the masses.

Publication: November 2010

Section: Editorial