Corn Saves America Podcast



Returning from the successful and award-winning “Escaping 1980,” the Presents podcast series returns with Seasons 2: Corn Saves America.

This season, hosts – Sarah Mock, Brent Gloy, and David Widmar – are thinking about the future of carbon markets through the lens of corn ethanol. Rather than picking a side of either debate, the team – joined by a host of additional experts – reviews the rise of biofuel for lessons that are applicable to the current enthusiasm about carbon offsets.

Season 2 can be found in the “ Presents” podcast, available everywhere you listen to podcasts.


Podcast Trailer – Corn Saves America

Carbon markets are officially The Next Big Thing in American Agriculture. This season, we searched for a past event that brought together technology, policy, and market forces in a way that echoes what carbon markets hope to achieve.  And we found one – the rise of corn ethanol.

In the coming episodes, we’ll unpack how corn-based fuel united farmers, energy companies, and environmentalists transformed markets and eventually became a political flashpoint to determine whether ag carbon markets could be on a similar trajectory.

Corn Saves America. Farming for the Environment, From Ethanol to Carbon Markets.

Episode 1 | Are Carbon Markets the New Ethanol?

Fifteen years ago, corn ethanol was a wunderkind, set to cure the U.S.’ addiction to foreign oil, reduce the pollution caused by driving, and revitalize American agriculture and rural economies. In the intervening years, the problems evolved while ethanol remained, and today many question what the future of the sector might look like. Today the U.S. is facing a different set of challenges, particularly around climate change, and the search for a solution – perhaps a silver bullet – remains. Ag carbon markets look promising, and advocates and entrepreneurs are flocking to them in the hopes that saving the planet might be a lucrative endeavor. Might the history of ethanol, ag’s past environmental policy, offer insight on what might be ahead for carbon markets?

Episode 2 | Origin Story

Corn alcohol has a long history as a fuel, going back well into the 19th century. Over time, it’s fallen in and out of favor, from being a pet project of Henry Ford’s to being outlawed during prohibition. By the 1970s, an oil crisis prompted farmers and lawmakers to take ethanol off the shelf, but it would languish until environmental concerns in the 1990s brought it back into the agricultural mainstream. Carbon markets are still very much experiencing their origin story, but by understanding how ethanol rose to prominence, we can gain a new understanding about what the next several years might look like for ag carbon markets.

Episode 3 | Chosen One

Ethanol’s rise was fueled by the introduction of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). Often lost in debates about implementing RFS has been the motivation, political shuffling, and history of two historic pieces of legislation. How exactly did RFS come to be, and what can we learn as it applies to the voluntary programs proposed for carbon?

Episode 4 | Chosen Too 

Though the amount of enthusiasm and excitement around voluntary ag carbon markets might make you believe that we’ve already determined that it’ll be the best way to involve agriculture in climate action, it’s definitely not the only, and likely not the best solution out there. In fact, there are several ways policymakers could create or motivate change, with various carrots and sticks, in the way that agriculture operates. Adding to the complication, even within a general policy solution – such as carbon markets – there are many details and nuances about how the program works.


Episode 5 | If You Build it, They Will Come

The Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) bolstered the market for corn-based ethanol, but also fueled a frenzy to build ethanol plants. Proposed plants got larger, building costs jumped higher, and a surge of potential projects created a regulatory and construction logjam. But just as fast as the mania turned red hot, the prospects of an even better technology and the ripples of the Great Recession shuttered projects that were years into planning.

Episode 6 | Hitting the Wall

The goals of every policy are eventually tested in the real world. For ethanol, the challenges came in the form of the “blend wall,” which effectively capped the growth of this formerly booming sector. Even the best-designed policies will struggle to navigate conditions that were uncertain or difficult to predict when legislation was passed. For carbon, detecting those potential limits on future growth is critical, and making sure our eyes are open to the possible pitfalls in terms of policy and market growth that might be on the horizon.