Caution about feed as rationale for wheat alcohol

by Morton Sosland
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For anyone in grain-based foods, it would be difficult to imagine a more disconcerting concept than using large quantities of wheat to produce ethanol and distillers dried grains. For the American industry particularly, that idea is chilling even though expanding use of wheat to make alcohol is an idea mainly heard in Europe. Grain-based foods in the United States primarily has had to cope with the effect on wheat prices of expanding use of corn in making ethanol. Indeed, the latter has prompted sufficient controversy that the thought of turning to wheat refining is beyond belief. As far removed from reality as this may be, it merits examination as a development that might surface in the increasingly aggressive search for alternative fuels.

The basic fact is that both wheat and corn are adequate as raw materials for producing ethanol. Corn accounts for almost all the U.S. output of ethanol because it is the much less expensive raw material. But in Europe, where wheat is more easily grown than corn, the ethanol focus has been on wheat. Of the 7.6 million tonnes of grain that will be processed in making ethanol in the European Union in 2009-10, wheat totals 4.5 million, or nearly 60 per cent. The International Grains Council has estimated that of the 124.5 million tonnes of grain that will be used to make ethanol in all countries in 2009-10, wheat will amount to 5.6 million, or 4.5 per cent. Corn’s worldwide share is an overwhelming 93 per cent.

Rather than deriving comfort from the minor role wheat has, grain-based foods would be well advised to understand that expanded wheat use is being pushed by some European interests. For instance, a company that is about to start a major new refining plant in England has sought to capture public endorsement for wheat use by not only promoting the supposed benefits of fuel being made from a renewable resource like grain but also by asserting that the high protein animal feed resulting from refining wheat “can reduce pressures on the world’s threatened rainforests by reducing Europe’s growing demand for soy meal imports.” It cites what it says are scientific studies proving that a dramatic expansion of acreage to produce wheat for refining would slash the need for Europe’s large soybean meal imports.

Indeed, this study suggests it would take the wheat outturn from 54 million acres (the harvested area for the 2009 U.S. wheat crop was 50 million acres) to produce enough distillers dried grains from wheat to end totally the continent’s reliance on meal imports. Such an area is unthinkable. Yet, citing this feed-related benefit is a new twist in the advocacy of expanded ethanol production.

Distillers dried grains have 30 per cent crude protein content, compared with 50 per cent for soy meal. Actually, D.D.G. made from refining wheat has more protein than feed processed from corn, reflecting the higher protein of wheat. At the same time, D.D.G. from wheat has a lower energy component, and the inclination is to claim little difference between the two. Global D.D.G. output in 2009-10 is estimated at 39 million tonnes as the byproduct of the 124.5 million tonnes being processed.

Regardless of whether or not the effort to relate producing ethanol from wheat to saving rainforests will ever cause more wheat to be used for this purpose, the sudden focus on the importance of the feed product is a stark reminder of its role. Like millfeed in flour milling, soybean meal in soybean crushing and corn gluten feed and meal in corn refining, D.D.G. is significant to the economics of ethanol production. It is the lack of this product in processing other agricultural products like grasses that largely stands in the way of their acceptance. But this role ought not to become the rationale for stepped up conversion of wheat into alcohol to the detriment of the food supply.

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