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Food vs. Fuel; Genuine issue or false choice

"Asleep at the wheel" and "huge mistake", that's how NatureWorks President and CEO Marc Verbruggen describes the bioplastics industry's response, or lack thereof, to the initial wave of "food vs. fuel" criticism directed at crop-based ethanol. "Food price spike: Is ethanol to blame?" is how CNNMoney framed the matter in June 2008 story, a theme repeated frequently during that summer and ever since.

Prices have increased 5% since last year, and it could get worse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that food prices will bump up another 5.5% in 2008. One of the reasons is that the price of corn - a staple ingredient in a variety of foods from cereals to cola and the main ingredient in animal feed - is selling above $7.50 a bushel, about 119% above the price from a year ago.

Stories like that, and the link made between using crops for anything other than feed for livestock or food for people, would quickly tarnish bioplastics in what became a sweeping condemnation. "We always talk about food vs. fuel, but we never talk about food vs. plastics," Verbruggen explained during his keynote presentation at IntertechPira's recent Biopolymers Symposium, in a hindsight-is-20:20 wish to reframe the debate.

If companies like NatureWorks can restart the discussion, they have a pretty strong case to make. Verbruggen said that in the U.S., ethanol currently consumes 25-40% of all feed corn grown; NatureWorks Ingeo PLA: only 0.11%. As small as its current consumption is, even if PLA maintained its heady growth, it would still constitute the equivalent of a single ear of corn in the midst of an entire field.

"We could build 20 new plants in Blair, Nebraska just from the growth in crop yield," Verbruggen said, noting how agricultural science continues to outpace resin demand. Even if Ingeo were to replace every lb of polystyrene made in North America, roughly 4.8 billion lb, which would require 15 new plants, PLA would only consume 1.65% of today's sugar production, according to Verbruggen.

Big Corn

Jim Kleinschmit, of the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) and the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative told the crowd that bioplastics aren't the driver for the corn industry, which dwarfs all other crops in the U.S. According to USDA 2010-2011 statistics, ethanol and feed accounted for 39% apiece of corn usage. Fully 92 million acres of corn were planted in 2011, accounting for about one half of all farm land. For each bushel of corn grown on that 92 million acres, we can get:

  • 31 lb starch
  • 33 lb sweetener
  • 2.8 gallons ethanol
  • 22.4 lb of PLA

Given the versatility of the crop, and its shear per lb yield, chances that it will be used only for food seem remote. "We need fuel, food, fiber and materials," Kleinschmit said, "and more and more, we're looking to the land for that." How the land is used ultimately will require input at all levels of society, including government.

"We need a food policy," Kleinschmit said. "We will never know how much food we need if we don't know how much food we need." In a relatively recent change, Kleinschmit noted that in addition to no national food policy, there are no longer any government held food reserves. Looking abroad and at global food issues, he also said that the U.S. cannot serve as the world's bread basket. "If we're going to solve hunger, we're not going to do it from the U.S. We need to help other countries grow more and better crops." Preservation would go a lot further than eliminated feed crop-based bioplastics, with global food waste at 40%.

Is sugar cane the answer?

In South America, the ethanol landscape is much different in more ways than utilizing sugar cane vs. corn, according to Braskem's Mark Mendelson. "There is no debate about ethanol vs. food in Brazil," Mendelson told the Biopolymers Symposium. In his presentation, a slide stated the fact more succinctly, noting that from its conversion of sugar cane ethanol into PE: "There is no impact on the Amazon nor in the global food equation."

Calling the plant "nature's solar panel", Mendelson said that sugar cane is one the most photosynthetic plants in the world, capturing oodles of carbon and converting it into oxygen. Fossil-fuel based polyethylene (PE) creates 1.5 tons carbon dioxide in its production while 2.5 tons of CO2 are captured from the production of sugar cane based PE.

Brazil is the global leader in sugar cane ethanol production, two times bigger then number two, India, and it keeps growing with a 3% compound annual expansion in yield. Right now, from the 580 million tons of sugar cane grown annually, Brazil generates 27 million tons of sugar, 6 billion gallons of ethanol (which is actually one half the U.S.'s corn ethanol output), and 1500 MW electricity.

The country has not fully exhausted the potential for more cane ethanol either. At this time, sugar cane crops utilize 2.5% of Brazil's arable land (keeping in mind that 22% of the globe's arable land is in Brazil). One hectare can product 85 tons of cane, with that output split into thirds: juice (water and sucrose), bagasse (used for electricity), and straw, which is waste. From one ton of sugar, 85 liters of ethanol can be produced. It also takes less fossil fuel to generate that ethanol. For every 1 unit of fossil fuel input, you get 1.4 output fuel energy from corn, 2.0 from sugar beets, but 9.3 from sugar cane.

Corn as food, for now

Regardless of any crop's yield, the market seems to be moving away from corn, at least, as a source for bioresins. NatureWorks itself has said it's seeking a non-food route to its lactic acid, and Coke and Pepsi, which have embraced green PET for their packaging, have said the ultimate goal for both is to source that bioplastic from non-food materials. If the age of cheap oil truly has passed, however, one has to wonder if corn's future will remain in food alone.

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