Research and the Recession

Pam Johnson, Chair of the Research and Business Development Action Team of the National Corn Growers Association, presented a briefing at the Maize Genetics Conference. She has words of frustration, words of hope, and words of encouragement for the maize genetics community.
Pam, a 5th generation farmer from Iowa, is the voice of 300,000 corn growers. She works as an advocate for public research and for public and private partnerships. The official mission of the NCGA is “to create and increase opportunities for corn growers”, but the goals are expanding in recognition of increasing global population and increasing needs for food and energy. A world where people have their needs met will be a more stable world, and corn can help make that possible.
The title of Pam’s talk is “Research and the Recession: How Obama and the Stimulus Package Impact the Future of Agricultural Research”. She had intended to speak about funding going towards the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture, but those decisions have been delayed by congress, so she instead focuses on the future of corn.
NCGA is the voice on Capital Hill for science and funding. The NGCA can’t lobby, but can educate on behalf of their members. She must show results to get funding, and must be able to show how research will benefit the constituents of the elected officials she speaks with.  The NCGA worked closely with the Obama transition team, encouraging the appointment of science friendly appointees. The stimulus package holds additional funds for the USDA and some programs. Corn is a national treasure and we haven’t yet used it to it’s full potential.
In her role as advocate, Pam works to keep funding focused on research, particularly corn research, including big items like the National Plant Genome Initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. The NPGI has created opportunities for collaborations through the Interagency Working Group. The research conducted by the NPGI is bigger than any one company or any one agency, so the strength is really in collaborative research.
In 2020, the NCGA anticipates producing about 17,000 bushels of corn per year in the US, with the additional grain going toward ethanol. Pam says that the food vs fuel issue is a myth, as we are able to produce enough for both. There have been significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions due to the use of biofuels. There are 180 biorefineries in the US right now. We should stop throwing stones at each other and work together.
There are more transgenic field trial release permits from the USDA for corn than for any other crop. Corn growers are supportive of getting more technology in the fields, and NCGA acknowledges everyone’s contribution to the pipeline that starts with basic research and ends with the consumer.
Pam closes her talk with some inspiration from Travis Smiley: “These times will separate the truth tellers from the power grabbers. The responsibility to restore hope lies with each of us.” and from Thomas Friedman: “Scientists are afraid of being advocates but advocates are not afraid of being scientists.” Pam asks us to “show up, speak up, form personal relationships with legislators, separate myth from the truth… let’s go to work!



  1. If we dramatically increase corn production to meet the needs for both fuel and food, my own concerns are with the runoff of fertilization and the amount of energy needed to process corn for fuel. Right now ethanol requires more energy to produce than can be harnessed through internal combustion engines. Are they proposing ways that this can be reversed so that ethanol produces a net gain in available energy? Also, it seems that corn depletes available nitrogen faster than most other crops and so more fertilizers are needed. The Mississippi is carrying a heavy load of runoff fertilizer to the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to the growing “dead zones” caused by algae blooms. How are we to deal with that?

    I am just curious if there are avenues in GMO to deal with these questions.

  2. I was suprised that Pam made such a bold statement about being able to grow enough for food and fuel, but there is a whole lot of room for improvement.I’m on the road now, so will comment more later.

  3. Ok, I have a teeny bit more time to answer your thoughtful comment 🙂

    Interestingly, a lot of the problems you bring up can be solved with genetic engineering.

    First, the amount of energy needed to produce ethanol (and gasohol, biodiesel, etc) is coming down each day as more and more research takes place. One of the biggest advances is in engineering bacteria that can more effectively breakdown carbohydrates (especially that stubborn lignin) into types of fuels that require less processing. It was even on the Colbert Report last week. Biofuels won’t fulfill all of our energy needs, but I think they have a place alongside wind, solar, maybe nuclear, and things that haven’t even been invented yet.

    Second, there’s tons of research on feedstocks (the stuff that gets turned into biofuels) from algae to perennial polycultures of native grasses. It’s unlikely that the same feedstock will work everywhere. For some places, corn stover will make the most sense, in others algae, trash, or a combination of these and more. Of course, I know more about what’s happening in the world of corn. With breeding and genetic engineering, the carbohydrates can be stored in forms that are easier to make into fuel. I just learned of some work on a mutation that increases biomass that doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on grain production. And, there’s a lot of work on checking how much stover can be safely removed from different types of fields without damaging soil carbon or causing erosion.

    Third, Nitrogen Use Efficient, or NUE, corn is just about ready to go, although the regulatory process will frustratingly still take about 3 years. This will decrease the need for nitrogen and decrease run off. Of course, I’d rather see NUE combined with more sustainable farming practices in order to have the most positive effect. I wonder if anyone is working on PUE or KUE. I hope so.

  4. One last thought – I don’t trust any of the estimates out there on the energy it takes to produce ethanol. Sadly, there seem to be those that over estimate the benefits and those that over estimate the costs. The truth is most likely in the middle.

  5. I would also like to mention that researchers are working on ways to get the ethanol out without the costly distillation methods involved. I think I’ve read about some stuff with membranes, and/or capillary tubes to draw out the ethanol.

    In the case of energy use, the over-estimates take a little too much into account, and have left certain things out. David Pimentel at Cornell did a study that included the fuel cost of ethanol plant workers’ sandwiches – as if they wouldn’t eat lunch if they didn’t work at such a plant. He also left out the energy savings of byproducts of corn grain ethanol such as distillers grains, which can be fed to cattle.

    I don’t know of any significant under-estimates, but I do know that Dan Kammen at UC Berkeley estimated that ethanol does turn a modest energy profit at its current state, when you take into account the byproducts that can be of use.

    As Anastasia mentioned, the non-grain part of the corn plant can be used as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. I know some researchers that have corn that produces tons of tillers on the bottom of the plant, increasing the biomass of the corn. The idea is that you can keep the grain and turn the rest of the plant into ethanol. It could make the Food vs Fuel debate a non-debate.

    There’s another thing to consider, too, when it comes to Greenhouse Gas emissions, that oil as-it-is takes about as much energy to process and transport as you get out of it at the end. So a gallon of gas is worth two gallons worth of emissions. A modest energy profit with biofuels doubles the actual GHG emission reduction.

  6. Karl, I am concerned about industry not including enough variables in their calculations, just as Pimentel (who I actually met in person a while ago, and haven’t had time to post my notes) includes too many variables. Like sandwiches! I totally didn’t know about that one.

    Thanks, Mike 🙂

  7. There was one problematic headline I remember, from a study published a little over a year ago on Ken Vogel’s switchgrass research. It mentioned 500% energy gains from switchgrass ethanol. But then when you read it, it assumed that the cellulosic ethanol technology worked efficiently. So the switchgrass half was great, but was missing the fermentation end of it.

    By analogy, it’s like the nuclear fusion estimations. Several times, the reactors they built didn’t quite cut it, but their understanding of the process led to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is expected to turn an energy profit. So we may indeed come across unexpected energy costs here and there that will reduce the promised energy gains.

    Some variables that might also be overlooked are the energy costs of transporting the feedstock to the refinery, and returning nutrients to the soil.

    Just thought I’d add to the pile. Glad it’s of use to you, Mike!

  8. […] and words of encouragement for the maize genetics community. She shares some news about her work getting funding for maize research and encouraging collaborations between the private and public […]

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