We often think of corn as a simple commodity, limited to either food or fuel. However, corn can be processed to utilize any or all of its four major components — starch, protein, oil and fiber — in thousands of applications, products and alternative uses.
Corn processing continues to find new ways to benefit consumers around the world and create new markets for producers.
“As corn prices go up, there's more interest in getting more out of it than we used to,” says Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University. Johnson says that while high corn prices have not affected the amount of research being conducted, they have affected the focus. “We believe you can produce both food and fuel from corn, as well as many other things.”
Johnson says that as long as petroleum sells for 15 times the price of corn, it makes sense to develop products that can replace those which are petro-based.
“Even with high corn prices, processing plants can operate profitably,” he says. “Some would argue oil at $140/barrel will support over $9/bu. corn. The price of corn alone is not the issue, it's the relative price of corn to petroleum that drives the processing industry.”
Johnson added that new uses offer producers more marketing opportunities. “Corn producers will always need as many markets as they can for their grain,” he says. “Until 20 years ago they had only food and feed; now there are more options. Today roughly one-third of the corn crop is processed in some way; in 1975 only 12% was processed, and that is a huge growth.”
While processing has grown greatly in past years, Johnson advocates for more research to further the development.
“The corn processing industry must prepare for the future,” Johnson says.
“As the profit margin gets squeezed it becomes more important to be efficient in utilizing the entire product.”
Getting more out of corn is something that is the specialty of NatureWorks LLC. Using biopolymer technology, the company manufactures a resin called Ingeo (polyactide PLA) and Ingeo fibers, which are licensed to other companies that provide consumer goods. Because these products are corn-made, they use up to 68% less fossil-fuel energy than traditional plastics and can break down into compost.
“Consumers are now brutally aware of how oil-based our economy is, not just in terms of what goes into our gas tank, but the products we buy,” says Steve Davies, global marketing director of NatureWorks LLC. “The consumers now get that we need better options. They're driving a huge demand for these products today because they're so much more aware of the impact of what they buy and its influence on the environment.”
NatureWorks Ingeo can be found in a variety of products such as packing materials, carpet, hygiene products, fresh food packaging, cleaners, disposable tableware and apparel. Other products becoming more common include plastic gift cards, weed-blocking landscape covering, durable plastic electronic housings and baby diapers.
“Consumer reaction is typically surprised but positive,” Davies says. “People have the idea that doing something good for the environment means giving up something. We've taken a lot of trouble to work with downstream manufacturers to make sure the product performs well, looks good and is good for the environment.”
While the acceptance and growth of these corn-based products has been impressive, Davies says the industry has more to come. “NatureWorks LLC started in 2003 as the world's first and largest bio-plastic facility, and yet it's still tiny in terms of the global plastic and fiber market,” Davies says. “What we see going forward is Ingeo and other bio-plastics becoming a fact of life and the norm.”
THIS GROWING MARKET of new uses for corn will also benefit producers, says Nathan Fields, director of research and business development for the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).
“If we can diversify the use of corn it will create more marketing opportunities and ultimately help corn growers,” Fields says. “Technology and research in terms of processing is continuously developing. There are a lot of promising applications to be excited about.”
Despite the array of corn-made products on the market, the NatureWorks plant at capacity uses less than .5% of the available U.S. corn crop.
Interested in these new value-added corn products? Check out some of the merchandise on retail shelves that started in a corn field:
· “We milk the cows and grow the bottles” is the motto of Naturally Iowa, Inc. The company packages its certified organic dairy products in Ingeo containers. For more information visit www.naturallyiowa.com or call 712-542-MILK.
· Mohawk Industries and DuPont's SmartStrand carpeting is made of agricultural materials, including corn. You can enjoy your corn crop year round right in your living room. For more information call 800-2MOHAWK.
· Looking for a unique company promotional item? Corn-based biodegradable plastic mugs, pens, letter openers, rulers and golf tees are available at www.cornmug.com, or call 425-681-2460.
· Sleep tight with Ingeo fiber pillows and comforters. Available at home stores, these bedding goods offer superior performance and insulation, luxurious comfort, lasting, springy loft and durability. Visit www.target.com, www.cozywinters.com or www.bedbathandbeyond.com for more information.
· Look good and feel good by wearing an Ingeo shirt from EcoWear USA. Available in various styles and colors, these shirts are wrinkle-free, easy-care durable and fully recyclable. For more information visit www.ecowearusa.com.
· Sam's Club and Wal-MartSuperCenters now offer Ingeo packaging on freshly cut fruit, herbs, vegetables and bakery products. Research indicated that this change to packaging made from corn will save the equivalent of 800,000 gal. of gasoline and reduce more than 11 million lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions.
For a complete listing of all products made with corn, visit the NCGA corn product search page at www.ncga.com/research.