The extended drought affecting about two-thirds of the country has dried up crops throughout the region.
The result is higher costs to consumers, both at the grocery store and the gas pump.
Higher corn costs have cast renewed attention on the 5-year-old federal mandate that an increasing amount of ethanol must be produced and blended with gasoline each year. The standards call for 13 billion gallons of ethanol this year and almost 14 billion gallons next year.
The U.S. Agriculture Department earlier this month said the country's corn crop will be the worst in seven years. At the projected level the ethanol requirement is expected to translate into more than 40 percent of the country's corn production this year.
Not all the corn used by the ethanol industry ends up in your gas tank. About one-third of the corn is converted into livestock feed.
Still, the high percentage in the midst of such a devastating drought has gained the attention of ranchers, chicken farmers and the United Nations director-general for food and agriculture, all of whom have called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to waive the ethanol mandate this year.
The mandate was designed in part to help increase domestic energy production and reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil.
Today, ethanol is made in this country almost entirely from corn.
Researchers in Oklahoma are leading the effort to produce ethanol without tapping the country's food supplies.
“I don't believe corn is the viable way forward for biofuels,” said Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma State University's vice president for research and technology transfer. “It is an energy inefficient process and it is taking food out of the market. Corn will never be the solution.”
With ethanol, corn is king because it is relatively easy to recover from corn the sugars necessary for fuel.
Other less-favorable plants also contain enough sugar for ethanol, but most of those are thick, tough, so-called “cellulosic” plants that are much more difficult to break down.
Oklahoma researchers are trying to change that, focusing their efforts on switchgrass, a weed that is natural to this part of the country and can be cultivated.
Researchers at OSU and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore are working to develop a switchgrass breed that yields higher amounts of usable plant per acre.
At the same time, researchers at the University of Oklahoma are trying to develop a switchgrass strain that is easier to break down into more simple sugars.
And researchers in other parts of the country are working on the methods and procedures that convert the plant into fuel, hoping to both increase the amount of ethanol produced and decrease the economic and energy costs involved in the process.
But don't expect to fill you tank with fuel from switchgrass any time soon.
Much of the research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, which has a stated goal of powering 30 percent of the country's transportation fuel with biofuels by 2030, with about half that amount comprised by cellulosic ethanol.