Ethanol – An Alternative Use for Corn

By Dr. Harold Willis

For the last several years, the possibility of using corn to produce a vehicle fuel — ethanol — has generated much excitement among politicians and the agribusiness industry. Can growing our own fuel really free the U.S. from importing so much foreign oil?

Ethanol is just the chemist’s name for what is often called ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol. It can and has been produced from many sources for thousands of years: fruits, grains, pota­toes and sugar cane, for example. It has usually been made for human consumption in the form of beer, wines, vodka, whiskey and many others. Corn grain is just one convenient source.

All that is needed is an organic material (or biomass) con­taining a source of sugar (starch and cellulose can be changed into sugar). Certain yeasts can transform (ferment) sugar into alcohol. When corn is used, the left-over solids, called distiller’s grain, can be used as livestock feed, and wastewater (high in nitrogen) can be used as a fertilizer.

With recent price increases in petroleum, interest in biofu­els has greatly increased, with scores of ethanol plants going up, especially in corn belt states. As long as the base price for oil is high enough, ethanol production can be profitable, but in late 2008, the petroleum price nose-dived, and many ethanol plants went out of business. During the brief heyday of corn ethanol production (especially 2007-2008), the demand for corn was so high, with as much as 25 to 30% of the U.S. harvest used for ethanol, that livestock feeders had trouble obtaining corn, driv­ing prices as high as $4 a bushel. Corn farmers loved that and increased their corn acreage (even plowing up land set aside for conservation), but it all caused considerable economic disrup­tion. Critics questioned the wisdom of diverting a food crop to fuel when malnutrition and starvation are worldwide problems.

Corn being processed into ethanol.

But besides the uncertain economic aspects of ethanol pro­duction, there are several other drawbacks. For one, the use of corn as a fuel source is hardly worthwhile, ecologically speak­ing. Depending on whose figures you use, growing and distill­ing corn may or may not take more energy than the ethanol pro­duces when it is burned as fuel. You have to include the energy used to plant and harvest the crop, and to make the fertilizer, herbicide and pesticides that most corn farmers use (all of those products are usually made from and with petroleum or natural gas). Then the distillation process also uses a lot of fossil fuel.

Also, when ethanol is used as a vehicle fuel, it does not give as many miles per gallon as gasoline (only about 66% as many), so ethanol is blended with gasoline (another reason for this is that engines require special modification to burn pure ethanol). Burning ethanol does produce less carbon dioxide (CO2) than an equal amount of gasoline, but if the use of petroleum in corn growing and distillation is added in, corn ethanol isn’t a great help in fighting climate change.

Many critics of corn ethanol are hoping that the commercial production of ethanol from other sources of biomass, such as switchgrass, sugar beets, crop wastes, lumbering wastes, city leaves, garbage, and so on, will supplant the use of corn, These alternate sources would likely be more economical than using corn, but if some of the crops (switchgrass and other dryland plants) require tilling thousands of acres of marginal farmland, prairies and deserts, the ecological destruction and dust-bowl conditions could be devastating.

Although corn-based fuel may not turn out to be such a great thing, ethanol from other sources, as well as biodiesel made from oil seed crops (especially soybeans), waste vegetable oils and even single-celled algae may eventually help to alleviate the future shortage of petroleum.

Source: How to Grow Top Quality Corn

Do You Need GMOs When Growing Corn?

By Dr. Harold Willis, Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler

Is GMO corn necessary for high quality production?

A Brief Controversial History of GMO

Since the 1980s, probably no new de­velopment has created more excitement — and controversy — than GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

It was the modeling of DNA that finally lured scientists and their corporate patrons into that nightmare of bad science. DNA is a blueprint of sorts. It tells cells how to divide and reproduce copies of themselves. Picture a twisted rope ladder. All DNA structures are shaped in this way — those of a dog, a flower, a human being. The rungs of the ladder are made up of four com­ponents: adenine (CHN), cytosine (CHNO), guanine (CHON), and thymine (CHNO). These are usually written as A, C, G and T. A can only pair with T, and C with G. Base pairs reproduce themselves, and this is where genetic manipulation enters the scene. Millions of these base pairs form genes. Evolution has taken up the chore of directing the base pair reproduction, fre­quently and even usually improving the life structure. Genetic engineers have learned how to add and delete from this ladder.

It was a small step to discover naturally occurring enzymes that act like molecular scissors for the purpose of adding or deleting rungs from the DNA ladder. Breaking the molecule has been applauded because of the potential for fighting hereditary disease conditions. Thus was born the idea of cutting and recom­bining at the molecular level. Thus was born the idea of finding a trait in one organism and transferring it to another organism. Thus also was born the idea of engineering the totality of life.

Two systems are before the world. One seeks to muck around with DNA, to interbreed species of plants and animals at the molecular level, to rescue mistakes with ever — more — powerful chemistry, to come and salvage rather than cause nature to reveal her secrets. Irradiation, not purity, is seen as the key to shelf life.

The second system does more than pay lip service to the conventional topics of humus, organic matter, mineral uptake, tilth, water conservation, line breeding, and humane animal husbandry. It seeks participation in the creation process so that future generations will inherit the land, a land improved, not degraded … productive, not degenerated.

The soil scientist watched these developments with alarm as he increasingly embraced the precepts of sustainable farm­ing. It was troublesome to see soybean and corn swept along on the tide of what appeared to be bad science.

Development and Use of GMO Corn

The first commercial GM (genetically modified) corn varieties, usually known as Bt corn, were released by a few companies in the mid-1990s, but soon one company, Monsanto, became the industry leader with its Roundup Ready corn.

Bt crops contain a gene from the common soil bacte­rium Bacillus thuringiensis (thus Bt). These bacteria produce a toxin that when ingested by certain insect larvae, especially caterpillars, disrupts their digestive system, killing them by starvation. Organic growers and home gardeners have used Bt for many years as an effec­tive non-chemical insecticide. The genetically engineered Bt corn is intended to mainly control the corn borer caterpillar and supposedly reduce the use of chemical insecticides.

texas corn field
A GMO corn field in Texas.

More recently, Monsanto has developed a GM corn that kills or resists the corn rootworm.

Roundup Ready crops have a gene that renders the plant re­sistant to the herbicide glyphosate (which used to be sold solely by Monsanto, but after their patent expired is now made by other companies). Thus a farmer can plant these crops and still control weeds.

GM corn use has steadily increased in the U.S., with about 80% of the corn acreage now growing it. The GM industry insists that their crops are totally safe (for food and in the environment) and that they are vital to help “feed the world.”

Concerns with GMO Corn

A few fragments of research called the genetic engineering concepts into question. A Rowett Research Institute scientist found organ damage in test animals fed on genetically modified potatoes. A few farm­ers reported feeding problems as well as the swine reproduction failures. Growers were promised immunity to pests and disease. It was reported that toxic wastes would soon be degraded cour­tesy of genetically modified organisms. Natural/organic growers were promised new crops that complied with the standards of the trade, crops that erased the need for pesticides and herbi­cides, as well as fertilizers. Moreover, as the genetic blueprints of the standard genetic code were unraveled, the scourges of the past would be no more than a bad memory. The government gave its imprimatur to this fiction while Monsanto swiftly took over the seed business and whole chunks of the storable com­modity grain trade.

Half the world rejected GMOs, but not the United States. Politicos with no knowledge of the subject endorsed the process.

In a farm world where 80 percent of the soybeans grown are genetically modified (in most American states, at least), simply stated, genetic engineering blends bacteria and viruses for the purpose of creating new combinations. Further lab techniques can then be used to make copies to introduce these genetic materials into organisms, that is, into cells of corn or into embryos of animals in order to make genetically modified cells. In plants, cells are regenerated to start a transgenic line. In the case of cows and sheep, foreign genes are inserted into the embryo or egg to grow a transgenic animal.

The problem with the technique is that it is totally unreliable and uncontrollable. This foreign splinter of DNA ends up in the genome and becomes scrambled. “We don’t know at all what they’re doing, and they admit that they don’t either,” say scientists who have banded together for the purpose of seeking a world free of genetic engineering. The scrambling is so bad that scientists can’t even sequence the identifying genome. For this reason, the engineered lines are unstable and subject to being re-engineered year after year, a ploy made possible by laws and company clout that requires farmers to “save no seeds,” but buy only from the primary supplier.

No one can claim that such crops are superior in nutrition to nature’s bounty. Big business argues — backed by considerable advertising — that genetically modified DNA is a carbon copy of natural DNA. Indeed, bad science in big business calls the strange new alchemy “the ultimate molecule.”

Health and Ecological Effects of GMO Corn

Overall, GMOs haven’t lived up to the hype. Many experts wor­ry that combining genes from two species can have unpredictable results, since the thousands of genes within one species’ cells have developed a finely-tuned mechanism that regulates all aspects of growth and reproduction. There have been cases where GMO genes have escaped into the environment, causing ecological up­set. An example is the wind-blown pollen of corn, with the Bt toxin killing monarch butterfly caterpillars. Also, some weeds have de­veloped resistance to herbicides, including Roundup, sometimes called “super weeds.”Do

An especially frightening side-effect of GM crops is that labo­ratory tests feeding them to animals (rodents) and livestock have found serious health problems, including crippled immune sys­tems, pre-cancerous cell growth, liver damage, abnormal develop­ment of certain body organs, sterility, and premature death. Yet it is apparently OK for humans to eat such food, since already, with­out adequate testing, GM corn (and other crops) are consumed by nearly everyone on earth.

Because of these concerns, dozens of other countries either reject GM crops entirely or are very cautiously investigating them. This makes it very difficult for the U.S. to export farm commodi­ties, resulting in millions of dollars of lost sales. Any contamina­tion of non-GM grain shipments by GM grain is cause for rejec­tion, which requires grain storage facilities to keep them separate. Also, yields of GM crops are often mediocre.

Conclusion: GMO Corn is not Necessary for a Quality Crop

Surveys of GM-using farms have often found only very slight reductions in pesticide and/or herbicide use. Another serious prob­lem is that the seed companies, which hold stringent patents on their GM products, charge high prices to farmers and do not allow them to save seed for future planting, with hefty lawsuits the result for transgressions.

Across the Rio Grande Valley, Esper K. Chandler can point to growers who outperform transgenic harvests while growing quality crops. This suggests that the spin — supporting GMOs are merely a tempest in a teapot, albeit a lethal one. It presumes to leave soil and plant malnutrition in place while producing bulk, having duplicated the banker’s miracle of creating money out of thin air, in the case of transgenic crops engineering plants to withstand starvation.

This observation leaves unexplained how the merger of bacterial and viral aggressors in the GMO process promises new combinations quite capable of building new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases resistant to all known treatments. “Bad science . . .” intones Chandler. “There’s no place for it in quality agriculture. That’s been proved with white wheat and yellow rice. The bushels may be greater, but the feeding quality subtracts the gain in a big way.”

Considerable experience by sustainable and organic farmers has shown that it is not necessary to grow GM crops to obtain high yields and to produce high quality, nutritious food. Healthy, vigorous plants have few pests, and weeds can often be controlled with little or no herbicide.

Excerpts from From How to Grow Top Quality Corn by Dr. Harold Willis and Ask the Plant by Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler

Finding the Right Variety of Corn Seeds

By Dr. Harold Willis

In this excerpt, biologist Dr. Harold Willis discusses how to choose the best corn seed and variety for your crops.

How to Select Corn Seed and Variety

First of all, you should always plant high quality seed with a high germination rate (above 98%). Seed quality depends partly on the health and vigor of the plant that produced it, as well as the care used in picking, drying, and sorting it. Seed grown under weather stress (drought, too wet, etc.) should be avoided.

It is very important to choose seed that is suited to your climate and soil, and for a desired maturation time. If you are growing corn for silage, choose a longer maturation time than if you want grain, since silage is harvested at an earlier stage of maturation. Another thing to remember is that 120-day corn, for example, may not mature in exactly 120 days. Growth can be slowed by unfavo­rable weather (too cold or too hot, drought, flooding) or nutrient deficiency, and it can be speeded up by optimal weather and soil nutrition, sometimes by as much as ten days to two weeks. A more exact way of measuring time to maturity is growing degree days (GDD). Growing degree days are calculated for each 24-hour day and added throughout the season.

The formula to use is:

Corn seed formula

If you don’t have a minimum-maximum thermometer, you can use figures from the nearest weather station. If the temperature goes below 50°F, substitute 50° for the minimum temperature, and if it goes above 86°F, substitute 86° for the maximum.

Seed should be chosen that contains desirable nutrient charac­teristics if you are growing grain or silage to feed animals. Among the hybrid varieties, there is a wide difference in protein quality and quantity. Most corn varieties are low in three essential amino acids, lysine, methionine, and tryptophan, so new hybrid varieties, general­ly called high-lysine corn, were developed. But they have their own problems: low germination and yield, and high moisture and kernel damage. Plus no hybrid contains as good a balance of trace miner­als as open pollinated corn.

heritage corn
A variety of traditional maize seeds in Peru.

Other special hybrids include:

  1. waxy maize, which contains high amounts of amylopectin starch and is said to produce more efficient gain in beef cattle;
  2. high sugar corn (sweet-stalk corn), which is said to be good for silage, but it is lower yielding;
  3. high oil corn, which is said to be good for fattening hogs, although it produces a softer backfat; and
  4. upright-leaved corn, which uses light better when planted in close rows.

Many farmers are switching to open pollinated varieties. New methods for improving them are being developed. Different varie­ties have different characteristics; for example, white corn is high in carbohydrates, yellow is high in vitamin A, and colored (“In­dian corn”) is high in minerals.

In general, higher test weight seed is of higher quality. To go through a planter well, seed should be graded for uniform size. Seed treated with fungicide and insecticide is good insurance, es­pecially if your soil isn’t in ideal condition. Sometimes adding ordinary sugar to the planter box will take the place of fungicide treatment, plus stimulate soil bacteria.

Excerpt from How to Grow Top Quality Corn by Dr. Harold Willis