There is some good news for American farmers amid a summer of drought and low crop yields: The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to approve the use of sorghum, a grain similar to corn that can be grown with a third less water, to make biofuel. Officials say they expect the decision to give farmers a new stream of income, prop up the biofuels industry and, of course, protect the environment. It should also help bring the United States closer to meeting its goal of annually producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022.

Matt Hartwig of the Renewable Fuels Association called the decision “a good first step.”

Currently, the U.S. uses only two advanced biofuels: sugar cane-based ethanol imported from Brazil and domestic biodiesel, a combination of petroleum diesel and renewable sources. Most of what is made in the U.S. is conventional ethanol made from corn — causing some critics to complain that the diversion is raising food prices for consumers. Of course, those critics fail to note that part of the problem is that corn has become the go-to ingredient for everything from soda to cereal. Because sorghum is not typically used in human food, this move should lead to fewer complaints. However,  it is used in feed for poultry, cattle and other livestock, so it is not far-fetched to worry that the move could lead to higher meat and dairy prices.

One Kansas plant run by Western Plains Energy L.L.C. has already started investing in the new sub-industry, putting $30-$40 million into renovations to assure it will be one of the first to turn the crop into advanced ethanol.

“We’re going to try to produce over 50 million gallons (of advanced ethanol) per year,” said Curt Sheldon, the plant’s chief accounting officer. “At today’s prices, we could probably pay for the project in two to three years.”

Main photo credit: Larry Rana/USDA