Crop gluts have farmers searching for new uses for their output.
Corn can be used in this Bioserie phone case and Serviceware cutlery (top), and the Rizieri shoe, helmet by Fashion Helmet and GroVia diaper (bottom). Ford’s seat cushion is made with soybeans.
Facing overstuffed silos and forecasts for another huge harvest this year, U.S. farmers are trying to find new uses for their corn and soybeans.
Robust demand for processed foods, animal feed and biofuels isn’t keeping up with a record glut of crops in the U.S. and around the world, after several years of bumper harvests and largely benevolent weather. To sell the surplus, farmers and trade groups are wooing new customers, from car makers to toy companies.
In recent years, corn and soybeans have been added to the recipes for Ford Motor Co. seat cushions, IKEA mattresses, Danone SA’s yogurt cups and Procter & Gamble Co.’s Olay moisturizers. Adidas AG’s Reebok brand recently unveiled sneakers made with corn. Lego A/S earlier this year said it was toying with using grain-based materials to mold its famous bricks.
Industry groups also are calling for more research into new ways that the crops could replace petroleum as a raw material in industrial and construction applications.
“We’re sitting on a pretty good surplus,” says Paul Bertels, vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, which recently called for more research to put corn in more products. “We stepped back and said, ‘We need to find new uses.’ ”
U.S. corn and soybean stockpiles swelled to a combined 10.35 billion bushels in the first quarter of 2017, a record. Soybean futures have fallen more than 10% at the Chicago Board of Trade since mid-January. Corn prices are also under pressure. Analysts expect big harvests in South America to increase the global glut, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in March that U.S. farmers also are expecting record acreage of soybeans this year.
The hunt for alternative uses for grains and oilseeds isn’t new. NatureWorks LLC, the world’s first and largest maker of a bioplastic called PLA, started in 1989 as a Cargill research project. But the multiyear glut, which has pushed many farmers deeper into debt and some out of business, is adding urgency to that work.
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