Addicted to Innovation


“The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot,” Sid Caesar once joked. “The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius.”

He may have a point. Someday, perhaps our descendents will say the same thing about fossil fuel production: The guy who invented the oil-drilling platform was “an idiot”–but the guy who invented the fuel-producing cornfield, “he was a genius”.

“America is addicted to oil,” President Bush said in his State of the Union address last week. That’s the line everybody remembers because all of the news channels repeated it incessantly. It was the top sound-bite from the speech.

Pop quiz: Do you know what Bush said next?

Here’s the whole sentence: “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”

And here’s what I’m thinking: Is there a more stable part of the world than America’s Corn Belt? It’s been a while since the governor of Iowa was overthrown in a coup.

The president’s words demonstrated that for renewable fuels, the time is now. Fortune (February 6, 2006) stated the matter plainly: “After decades of being merely an additive to gasoline, ethanol suddenly looks to be the stuff of a fuel revolution,” said the magazine. “The next five years could see ethanol go from a mere sliver of the fuel pie to a major energy solution in a world where the cost of relying on a finite supply of oil is way too high.”

Brazil already has shown us that ethanol can power a major economy: About 40 percent of Brazilian cars run on ethanol, rather than gas from global trouble spots such as Iran or Venezuela.

When it comes to ethanol, Brazil has a few natural advantages over the United States. Labor costs are less, a major factor in making the bio-fuel affordable. Also, a warmer climate means that Brazilian motorists don’t have to deal with the cold-start problems that many Americans face in January. Ethanol simply doesn’t ignite as well in low temperatures.

Yet innovation–an American specialty—will help us overcome these and other problems. “The best way to break this addiction is through technology,” said Bush. “And we are on the threshold of incredible advances.”

The president, for instance, spoke of “cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass.”

Although the President’s reference to this triumvirate of potential new fuel sources drew snickers from hidebound pessimists, they are in fact worth serious attention. Scientists have shown that cellulosic ethanol–i.e., the kind derived from wood chips, stalks, and switch grass–holds incredible promise.

Consider switch grass. It’s a native prairie grass that once covered the plains before the arrival of settlers who farmed and ranched the land. It could be an ideal source of biomass for a new ethanol–even better than the corn-based ethanol we produce in the United States right now because it would produce more gallons per acre.

Research indicates that with smart breeding, we might be able to harvest more than 12 tons of switch grass from a single acre. Test plots at Auburn University, in fact, have generated 15 tons per acre. While an acre of corn produces about 400 gallons of ethanol, an acre of switch grass can produce over 1100 gallons per acre.

Switch grass is also good for the environment. It provides an excellent habitat for wildlife while defending against soil erosion in hilly areas.

In the near-term, breaking our economic dependence on oil will require more reliance on corn-based ethanol. Here in the Midwest, it already fuels a lot of cars, including mine, and it will fuel more in the years to come. But as the President made clear, corn is just the beginning.

Maybe some future president will speak of our country’s addiction to switch grass. We should be so lucky.

Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology ( a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.

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