The need for self-dependent in energy production has become an important topic in modern economics, especially due to the declining sources of clean energy in the contemporary world. The agricultural sector in the US has equally become a major point of focus for various studies on energy economics. Currently, the rising cost of farm usage of electricity has become a serious challenge to American farmers. Farmers are finding it difficult to meet the high demands for electricity on their rams, which is increasingly affecting production1. In addition, dependency on oil is still high in American farms, despite the increasing rate of oil prices on the world market2.
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The rising prices of energy and the changing policies for energy and environment have made an important impact on the relationship between energy and the American agricultural sector3. In the traditional system, the relationship between the two aspects has been one-way, where agriculture was using energy products as its major input for production. Nevertheless, the transforming relationship has seen the agricultural sector become one of the best provides of inputs for the energy sector, with agricultural products becoming a major input for energy production4.
One of the major farm products that have shown great potential to transform the old system is corn, a farm crop that is widely produced in the US primary as an animal feed. A vast volume of research data has emerged in the last few decades and provides evidence that corn is the potential for producing energy is the future solution for America’s quest for green, clean and renewable sources of energy.
Nevertheless, the use of corn as a source of green energy is limited, especially in American farms. Despite its potential in reducing costs and providing an alternative source of green energy, the use of corn in American farms is below the expected standards5. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to provide a detailed analysis of how American farms can use crops, especially corn, to develop a self-dependent source of energy, reduce costs and impact of oil on the environment6.
The paper aims at providing a comprehensive explanation of how modern American farmers can tap corn energy to improve their production and self-reliance.
This research seeks to use a qualitative review of the current and recent literature from the wide number of studies on corn and its potential as a source of alternative energy for American farms. In addition, the review will examine the results of various reports and organizations that have attempted to develop projects to help the American agricultural sector use its own products to create self-sources of energy.
Review of literature
Over the years, corn has been used to produce alcohol in the form of ethanol, a major raw material for the production of energy. It is widely used to produce fuel for engines, which are highly applied in modern farms. As farms quest to increase mechanizing their production, the demand for energy increases7. However, most farmers fail to know that they can use products such as corn to produce energy, which is likely to make them self-dependent and reduce the cost of production8.
Corn, the major crop occupying most American farms, is a plant from the grass family, which grows almost in every American state. In particular, the American Corn Belt is a massive area producing this crop on a large scale, which is increasingly being used for industrial, food, and animal feeding purposes. Only a small portion of the annual corn production is used to feed humans. In fact, the report shows that only less than 4% of the corn produced in the US is used as human food.
The majority, about 40%, and 36%, is used for industrial purposes and animal feed, respectively. According to Wilhelm (2007), research indicates that corn stovers, the stalks, leaves, and cobs that remain after the corn grain is removed, make the largest biomass in corn farms. In fact, the study shows that corn stover is the main source of biomass that is being used in industries to produce cellulosic ethanol in the US9. A study by Mann and others (2002) indicated that American farmers have the potential to harvest this product for cellulose sugars, which is easily fermented into ethanol.
Discussion and analysis of energy production at the farm level
What kind of energy can be produced from corn in American farms?
Corn stover is the largest residue of corn production in the US, with annual biomass of more than 120 million tons. According to a study by Pimentel and Patzek10 this product has the potential to supply between 25 and 56 billion liters of ethanol to the national transport sector, which is about 10% to 20% of the national oil usage per annum. However, it has been shown that a number of factors limit the large-scale production of energy from these products. Thus, the corn stover remains back on the farm as a waste product in most farms, which makes it a good source of energy for farmers at the local level.
Studies have shown that an average American corn farmer can produce enough ethanol to drive almost all machines on the farms, which is likely to cut on the cost of oil usage by close to 100% and electricity usage by about 80%. For instance, research from the agricultural sector indicates that the US corn produces between 150 and 160 bushels of corn per acre11. This means that the number of corn plants on a single farm produces huge masses of corn grains, but the stover, which is mainly left on the farm, occupies the largest portion. Studies indicate that about 70% of corn stover is made of cellulose material, and up to 25% is mainly composed of lignin. According to Capper, Cady and Bauman12 cellulose is easily converted to ethanol while lignin burns as a broiler fuel for the generation of steam and electricity.
The importance of this form of energy to the farms and the market is evidently high. Theoretically, each ton of corn stover has the potential to produce more than 130 gallons of ethanol, which is more than the total energy consumed in American farms. This implies that farmers can cut on energy costs by about 100%, given that corn produces both electricity and biofuel energy. Since most corn farms are large scale, it is clear that the amount of energy that each farm can produce in the form of biofuel alone is excessive, which means that farmers can be self-dependent in terms of biofuels. If an effective system that converts the huge amounts of corn stovers into ethanol and lignin is achieved, farmers will also cut on the cost of managing waste products on the farm.
In fact, it has been shown that American farmers spend more than 6% of their earning trying to manage farm wastes, despite some being reusable in their production. It is also worth noting that such a system is likely to increase the overall production when farmers reduce their reliance on petroleum and electricity. It has been shown that American farmers spend more than 20% of their earnings on energy.
If corn fuel can effectively reduce farm dependence on oil and electricity, then it is possible for the framers to plow back the 20% of their total earnings to production. This means that the rate of profitability for the agricultural sector is likely to increase by more than 10%13. Overall, the economy is likely to benefit from increased agricultural production. For instance, American farmers have a huge local and international market. In fact, the world market for agricultural products is never satisfied, given the rising population and disparities caused by environment, economics, technology and international politics14. This means that increasing agricultural production on American farms will benefit the farmers even if the local market is satisfied.
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Thirdly, an increase in the volume of ethanol produced from American farms is likely to benefit the industrial sector in a number of ways. Apart from achieving self-sources of energy; American farmers will find it difficult to store the huge volume of ethanol in their farms because it is more than they need. Fortunately, the American industrial usage of ethanol exceeds production. Farmers are set to take this advantage and sell the excess ethanol to the industry, including the transport sector. It is important to note that modern campaigns for improving the environment and reducing greenhouse gases, as per the Kyoto Protocol, call for increased production of green and renewable energy. Corn ethanol is one of the main sources of this form of energy. Its market has improved since 1997 and is improving with technological advancements. Therefore, farmers have a ready market for ethanol, which is likely to improve their annual income.
The long-term effect of corn energy on the farms and environment
Over the years, corn has been planted on American farms every year, with little, if any, negative impact on the soil, water and the ecosystem. Corn is a member of the grass family. In fact, it was derived from grasses that grew freely in most South American lands several years ago15. Molecular biologists have noted several genes that have contributed to the high bioengineering potentials of the crop. For instance, it has been shown that the crop, commonly known as maize in Europe and other nations, experiences one of the most important mutation events in its gens, which have converted the once grass-like plant into a large plant with huge production of grains every year. In addition, mutation events in certain genes in corn have conferred the plant some abilities to adapt to different environments, which makes it one of the most grown crop in America and the world.
Therefore, there is little evidence to show that repetition of the crop on land is likely to destroy the nature and quality of soil, water or the ecosystem. In fact, being a grass itself, corn has the potential to contribute to the overall quality of soil and the ecosystem. For instance, the plant is easily converted to humus because it has a soft tissue that is easily digested by microorganisms. In addition, apart from humans and farm animals, corn is a major source of food for other animals. In fact, wild birds in the US benefit from corn harvests. In fact, most birds feed on corn grains from its early development until harvesting. Although birds pose a problem to framers, massive production and repetition of the crop on farms contributes to the ecosystem rather than interfering with it.
Nevertheless, commercialization of corn is likely to produce some negative aspects. For instance, the application of excessive chemicals to boost production and storage has been shown to have some negative impacts on the soil, air and water. In addition, excessive use of fertilizers to boost corn production has interfered with the natural state and quality of American soil. Therefore, there must be better methods of production, especially when production of fuel from corn goes commercial. Organic fertilizers and use of other crops to boost soil quality should be used instead of chemical fertilizers.
It has also been shown that corn is a major user of fresh water in the US. For instance, studies have shown that corn in the US uses more land than any other crop, with more than 98 million acres of arable land going under corn every year. In addition, the crop consumes more than 5 cubic miles of irrigation water being drawn from freshwater sources such as aquifers, lake and rivers. Thus, it competes with human, animals and other plants in water usage. Since irrigation is normally used in corn production, the excessive fertilizers and other chemical wastes are easily washed off into the natural water sources, destroying its quality.
Therefore, these problems complicate the possible use of corn as a source of alternative energy on the farms. If farms commercialize their production of ethanol and electricity from corn, it is likely that they will have to enhance production, which will require massive use of water, fertilizers, land and chemicals.
Effect of corn on daily and meat products
Corn is the chief source of food for farm animals, especially cattle, sheep, goats, pig, horses, fish and chicken. In fact, corn is easily turned into various types of food for animal and human consumption. Currently, American farms are increasingly using corn to fatten animals meant for production of meat. Due to the high glucose content of corn grains, farmers have been using corn-derived animal food to increase the rate of growth and fat deposition in animals.
In fact, this has become a major area of concern for environmentalists and health enthusiasts. Studies are being conducted to determine the health impact of eating meat from animals fattened with corn, with a number of studies suggesting that excessive weight, cardiac problems and other related health problems are likely to result from this type of meat. Secondly, dairy animals are fed with excessive corn products to increase production. It has been shown that farmers are increasingly denying their animals the right to feed on natural grass due to reduce production of mils associated with open feeding. With high glucose content, corn has been used to boos milk production in cattle and goats. However, health enthusiasts have attempted to carry out studies to prove that the quality of this milk is relatively low and may have impacts on human health, especially on children.
To boost self-reliance in energy, American farmers are expected to boost corn production. They must ensure that the crop is available for conversion into ethanol and electricity/steam throughout the year. However, to avoid excessive use of fertilizers water and chemicals on their farms, it is necessary to use organic fertilizers. Animal and crop wastes on the farms are the best organic fertilizers that farmers can use to boost corn production. Secondly, it is important that the framers interchange corn or grow this crop with other crops, especially leguminous plants such as peas and beans. It is likely that the intercropped legumes will enhance nitrogen fixation on the soil, which will boost corn production for energy purposes.
Thirdly, it is recommended that farmers obtain training on the use of corn stovers to produce ethanol and electricity/steam. In fact, the prices of machinery running on ethanol instead of petroleum products are relatively high. To ensure that farmers are self-sufficient in form of energy production, it is important to provide them with the required machinery that runs on green fuel. It is the role and responsibility of the government and relevant institutions to ensure the availability of these machines. Finally, it is recommended that farmers begin with small-scale production of ethanol and electricity from their farms in order to offset the possible impact of overproduction of ethanol or electricity on the farms, which is likely to affect the industry. The production should be progressive in nature in order to mitigate the risks likely to result from the excessive production of corn on the farms.
Capper, Joseph, Alfred Cady and Davis Bauman. “The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007.” Journal of Animal Science 87, no. 6 (2009): 2160-2167. Web.
Gardner, Bruce. “Fuel ethanol subsidies and farm price support.” Journal of Agricultural & Food Industrial Organization 5, no. 2 (2007): 239-247. Web.
Graham, Robin Lambert. “Current and potential US corn stover supplies.” Agronomy Journal 99 no. 1 (2007): 1-11. Web.
Kim, Hyungtae, Seungdo Kim, and Bruce Dale. “Biofuels, land use change, and greenhouse gas emissions: some unexplored variables.” Environmental Science & Technology 43, no. 3 (2009): 961-967. Web.
Pimentel, David, and Tad W. Patzek. “Ethanol production using corn, switchgrass, and wood; biodiesel production using soybean and sunflower.” Natural resources research 14, no. 1 (2005): 65-76. Web.
Pimentel, David. “Ethanol fuels: Energy security, economics, and the environment.” Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics 4, no. 1 (2011): 1-13. Web.
Solomon, Barry, Justin Barnes, and Kathleen Halvorsen. “Grain and cellulosic ethanol: History, economics, and energy policy.” Biomass and Bioenergy 31.6 (2007): 416-425. Web.
Wilhelm, Wally. “Corn stover to sustain soil organic carbon further constrains biomass supply.” Agronomy journal 99, no. 6 (2007): 1665-1667. Web.
1 David Pimentel, “Ethanol fuels: Energy security, economics, and the environment,” Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics 4, no. 1 (2011): 1. Web.
2 David Pimentel, and Tad W. Patzek, “Ethanol production using corn, switchgrass, and wood; biodiesel production using soybean and sunflower,” Natural resources research 14, no. 1 (2005): 65. Web.
3 Lambert, Graham, “Current and potential US corn stover supplies,” Agronomy Journal 99 no. 1 (2007): 5. Web.
4 Wally, Wilhelm, “Corn stover to sustain soil organic carbon further constrains biomass supply,” Agronomy Journal 99, no. 6 (2007): 1667. Web.
5 Bruce Gardner, “Fuel ethanol subsidies and farm price support.” Journal of Agricultural & Food Industrial Organization 5, no. 2 (2007): 239. Web.
6 Hyungtae Kim, Seungdo Kim and Bruce Dale, “Biofuels, land-use change, and greenhouse gas emissions: some unexplored variables,” Environmental Science & Technology 43, no. 3 (2009): 961. Web.
7 Pimentel, 6
8 Pimentel and Patzek, 68
9 Joseph Capper, Alfred Cady and Davis Bauman, “The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007,” Journal of Animal Science 87, no. 6 (2009): 2162. Web.
10 Pimentel and Patzek, 68
11 Barry, Solomon, Justin Barnes, and Kathleen Halvorsen, “Grain and cellulosic ethanol: History, economics, and energy policy,” Biomass and Bioenergy 31.6 (2007): 416. Web.
12 Capper, Cady and Bauman, 34
13 Pimentel, 8
14 Pimentel, 13
15 Pimentel, 12