The newest monument to corn that freewheeling Dwayne Andreas is building is as audacious as he is. Either Andreas is so far ahead of time that it's no contest or he's really blown it on this one.
Using corn as the basic raw product, Andreas and his Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. are becoming the Exxon of fuel alcohol, if they are not that already.
With only a little finagling, America's most abundant grain is easily converted into a fuel for automobiles, trucks and tractors. For a nation addicted to petroleum, that is important -- or it could be.
He who controls alcohol fuel controls power. ADM not only is in on the ground floor, it owns a sizable share of it. Federal and state subsidies promoting gasohol, the 90/10 mix of gasoline and alcohol, have helped a profitable company do even better.
There is, admittedly, a certain excitement about the idea of distilling corn to motor fuel. But the use of a vital food commodity and a tightly stretched land base to power engines raises, in the minds of many, disturbing questions about priorities and resources protection.
The long-term implications of what is happening at the ADM distillery here in Decatur involve such questions, but for the nonce, the questions are not being asked. Meanwhile, Andreas' gift for blending his grain business with the right political seasonings (he is a major contributor to influential legislators) continues to inspire a certain awe. His big alcohol-from-corn venture suggests the same sort of magic touch, even though fuel demand is on a plateau for now.
ADM of which Andreas is chairman and chief executive, is expanding corn wet-milling operations here and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to produce more ethanol. Another ADM plant, an old liquor distillery, also is being fitted out to make alcohol from corn.
These moves will tighten ADM's lock on ethanol, which with gasoline becomes gasohol and is sold at more than 9,000 filling stations in 45 states. Heavy subsidy, through exemption from federal and state taxes, is the only way gasohol can compete at the pump with gasoline, although its role is more complementary than competitive.
The estimates vary, but ADM produces at least half, and possibly as much as 75 percent, of the fuel alcohol used in this country. Almost every drop begins in a farmer's field.
Other sugar and starch foods -- cane, beets and potatoes, to name a few -- also will produce alcohol. But none does it as profitably or as efficiently as corn, at least at today's corn prices and with today's gasohol subsidies.
Only two years ago, the alcohol-fuel idea was the range. Ample corn, rising oil prices and diminishing oil supplies made it enticing. Farmers were experimenting, consultants were making fast bucks, self-styled experts were peddling stills. Washington was promoting it with loans and tax breaks.
But now, the bloom has withered somewhat. Many farmers have found the process too complicated or too costly. Gasoline consumption has slowed, as have price increases. Over the protests of grain-state legislators, the Reagan administration has backed away from Jimmy Carter's heavy commitment to alcohol fuel stimulation.
At one end of the scale, ADM is successfully producing large commercial quantities of alcohol. Down at the lower end, the idea of a homegrown industry with self-sufficient farmers running their own stills apparently isn't working so well.
"There's no question that the rush to alcohol has slowed," said writer Hal Bernton of Mt. Vernon, Wash., author of a forthcoming book on the gasohol movement. "The X factor is still the price of corn versus the price of fuel."
Bernton's finding is that the much ballyhooed on-the-farm development of alcohol is not as extensive or as successful as generally believed, although some farmers are running farm equipment with homemade alcohol fuels, most of it produced from corn.
"There may be 100 small on-farm distilleries operating today, producing perhaps 50,000 gallons per year or less," he said. "There's still a lot of experimentation going on, however. The media called this a here-now technology, distilling grain to alcohol, but it has been largely a farmyard research and development effort. For every success, I have seen three failures."
But there has been less withering of the bloom here in Decatur, in the heart of the Corn Belt, where ADM operates. By the end of 1981, almost doubling its capacity, ADM will be able to produce 650,000 gallons of ethanol a day -- enough to make 6.5 million gallons of gasohol.
Those figures fit into this 1980 context reported by the U.S. National Alcohol Fuel Commission: Commercial alcohol producers made 105 million gallons, mostly from corn (at 2 1/2 gallons per bushel). Another 55 million gallons were imported. Gasoline, on the other hand, was consumed last year to a tune of about 100 billion gallons.
ADM acknowledges that lagging gasoline sales in recent months raise certain clouds over its heavy commitment to ethanol, but the company remains optimistic. "We think alcohol has a place as a fuel or booster," said the company's Richard Burket.
All of ADM's eggs are not in one profitable basket, however. The distillery here and the other at Cedar Rapids are components of corn milling plants that can be turned to other products -- starches, dextrose, corn oil, sweetners -- when the demand for alcohol dips. Corn, soybeans and other activities last year gave ADM $2.8 billion in sales with profits of $116 million.
Yet at the nation looks to corn as a source of fuel, there are questions.
Corn is also a food of immense value and no subject stirs more contentious disagreement in business, political, agricultural and moralizing circles than that of making fuel from food.
Can U.S. farmers and land produce enough to satisfy all demands? Should vital soil and water resources be exploited to make fuel for trips to the beach? Should valuable grain exports be curbed so the grain can be used to make fuel at home? If alcohol production rises, will food be priced out of reach of the world's poor? Should government subsidize the alcohol fuel production? Where does it stop?
The answers, in no particular order, are yes, no, maybe. The debate is that unsettling. Even within the wet-milling industry, the locus for corn distilling and an obvious beneficiary of a larger alcohol-fuel market, there is not agreement on these questions.
The alcohol fuel commission, created by Congress with a frankly pro-alcohol tilt, reported in January that America can, in effect, have its corn and distill it, too, with no strain on the economy, farmers or natural resources.
For that to occur, however, the commission said a mix of government support, higher oil prices and more corn production -- achieved by diverting land now planted to soybeans -- would be necessary. But a move to less rotation of crops is a move that many experts feel would be ruinous for rich American farmlands.
Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), a commission member, said he felt the report "puts things to rest. . . . I'm still as optimistic about alcohol potential as I was. A couple years ago, farmers and legislators felt alcohol could be produced miraculously. But ideas became less glamourous as they're more fully explored. It is not a miracle fuel."
In the view of the more skeptical, such as Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, an emphasis on alcohol from grain has grim global implications -- a view shared, incidentally, by many corn farmers here in the Midwest. As the enthusiasm and economic incentive to increase exports mounts, the temptation grows to put marginal, erosion-prone lands into production, in turn creating new management and financial burdens on agriculture and government.
"The pressure on croplands around the world is already intense, excessive in some areas. Alcohol intensifies the [production] demand made on the land and that will tale a toll over the long run," Brown said. "The commission assumed we would continue to have excess capacity. I doubt that we ever will have excess capacity again. For food-deficit countries, it is very tempting to solve their internal agricultural problems with imports. That puts enormous pressure on North American grains, and on U.S. farmers."
In the developing countries, the demand is not for the sophisticated starch and syrups that American corn millers and refiners produce. It is for the raw product, the corn, that U.S. farmers grow and that the millers and refiners use to turn out food ingredients and industrial goods.
Even the high-protein animal feed and meal that results from the alcohol distillation process is of little use in those countries, since corn bypasses the hog or chicken and goes directly to human consumption.
Because of corn's relatively low price, American beef, pork and poultry producers tend to feed their stock raw corn, mixed with other grains and nutrients. The ADM distillery and other milling plants that make beverage alcohol have found a demand overseas for corn gluten meal and feed, an important byproduct of their alcohol process. With starches drained out and proteins pumped in by the distilling yeast, the enriched food causes impressive animal weight gain.
Some scientists, such as Drs. William M. Doane and Rodney J. Bothast, researchers at the Department of Agriculture farm products laboratory in Peoria, Ill., believe that more imagination is required if corn is going to meet the many demands placed on it.
They see bright potential in alcohol fuel, whether it is produced from corn or other farm products. Corn, for example, might be available in greater quantities for export to needy nations if U.S. farmers used more corn gluten meal and feed than raw corn for their livestock.
"agriculture can be made more efficient if we use more of what's grown . . . Technologically, we could make all the products we now make from petroleum by using plant materials. It still is not feasible from the cost standpoint," Doane said. "But corn grain is going to have to be looked at as a different entity than feed alone. One way to upgrade corn as a feed is to make alcohol."
The future of corn as a basic source of fuel may remain iffy. The technological frontiers that Bill Doane talks about crossing are still somewhere out there in the hazy tomorrow. But the pervasive sweep of corn -- the zea mays of the botanists, the maize of the Indian, the new gold of the traders and the industrialists -- is established. We will not make it through the rest of this day without corn.