The ongoing growth of corn-based ethanol production raises some fundamental questions about what impact continued growth will have on U.S. and world agriculture. Estimates of the long-run potential for ethanol production can be made by calculating the corn price at which the incentive to expand ethanol production disappears. Under current ethanol tax policy, if the prices of crude oil, natural gas, and distillers grains stay at current levels, then the break-even corn price is $4.05 per bushel. A multi-commodity, multi-country system of integrated commodity models is used to estimate the impacts if we ever get to $4.05 corn. At this price, corn-based ethanol production would reach 31.5 billion gallons per year, or about 20% of projected U.S. fuel consumption in 2015. Supporting this level of production would require 95.6 million acres of corn to be planted. Total corn production would be approximately 15.6 billion bushels, compared to 11.0 billion bushels today. Most of the additional corn acres come from reduced soybean acreage. Wheat markets would adjust to fulfill increased demand for feed wheat. Corn exports and production of pork and poultry would all be reduced in response to higher corn prices and increased utilization of corn by ethanol plants. These results should not be viewed as a prediction of what will eventually materialize. Rather, they indicate a logical end point to the current incentives to invest in corn-based ethanol plants.
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