Pulling Back The Curtain and Peering Into the Future Of Corn

Conference offers view the new product that might be made from corn in the future.

Published on: Jun 4, 2008

Scientists at the "New Horizons" corn conference are buzzing about new products they are developing from corn and corn processing byproducts.

Plastics, textiles, cosmetics and medical fabrics are all possibilities – and they are not that far off.

"If you know of a sugarbeet factory that is shutting down, let me know," says Rawle Hollingsworth, of Michigan State University, who is involved in commercialization of patented chemistry derived from corn and other plant materials that can be used to make everything from paper to pharmaceutical ingredients.

Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, which sponsors the event, says the attending the conference is like "pulling back the curtain and peering into the future" of the corn industry.

Twenty years ago, scientists at conferences like these talked about ethanol.

Now, the conference is about "what"s beyond ethanol" or "what"s after ethanol," says Richard Glass, NCGA vice-president of director of market development.

Feed products
A number of researchers are discussing new feed products made from distillers grains.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service and several universities and private companies are working on making pellets from a blend of crop residue, corn stover and DDGs for cattle feed.

University of Nebraska representatives says that cow-calf producers in that state have figured out how to store wet distillers grains for several months without spoilage by mixing it with ground hay or crop residues, piling it in bunkers or between round bales and covering it plastic to seal out air.

New corn, too
New types of corn might be on the horizon, too.

The $32 million corn genome sequencing project is complete and is already being used to speed development of biotech corn.

"We are poised at a very special time," says Patrick Schnable, Iowa State University plant scientist. "We can engineer corn to do what we want."

Roger Elmore, Iowa State University Extension agronomist, is making the case at the conference that increasing the genetic yield potential of corn should be one their first priorities.

He says that the yield potential has not changed in 20 years. He estimates it to be approximately 450 bushels per acre. Actual yields are far less. They have been increasing, but it is mainly due to improvements in management – either through equipment, farmers" practices or genetic modification. All biotech traits introduced so far have been defensive ones, he says.

The yield ceiling as exhibited by top yields in the national corn yield contest is about 350 bushels per acre, a mark that hasn"t been surpassed since it was first set in 1985.

"We need a paradigm shift" similar to the introduction of hybrid corn, he says.

When hybrid corn was introduced in the 1930s, yields doubled in 10 years.

To meet the demand for fuel, feed, food and – soon – industrial products, corn yields will have to rise. Judging by the enthusiasm being exhibited here, doubling may not be enough. The conference continues Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo.