Corn in Our Sides

It’s time to discuss using food for fuel. Let’s talk ethanol.

In recent speeches, President Bush lauded ethanol as the way forward. This is certainly a big step for our President, albeit a false one. For starters, ethanol isn’t that green. First, one must factor in the pesticide and petro-chemical fertilizer runoff that’s a biproduct of growing corn. Second, ethanol’s relative inefficiency means that it emits more pollutants per unit of energy than gasoline. 

What’s more, ethanol use is a bit silly. As Michael Pollan wrote in his interesting book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it takes about a quarter to a third of a gallon of oil to produce a bushel (56 lbs) of corn. While Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that corn-based ethanol produced 25 percent more energy than what was used to create it, it is much less efficient than biodiesel fuel made from soybeans, which creates 93 percent more energy output than the input.

Those findings are downright optimistic compared to Cornell’s David Pimentel, who calculated that there was a net energy loss from producing ethanol. I’m no scientist and I’d imagine the truth lies closer to the U. Minnesota figures, but it’s interesting to peek into this debate. By the way, Pimentel wrote that for ethanol to meet our fuel needs, we’d have to grown corn on 97 percent of the U.S. I’d like to see that on Google Earth!

It seems that the ethanol solution, while it sounds appealing, isn’t for us. Sugar cane ethanol is more efficient and that product isn’t abundant in the U.S. Now if cellulosic ethanol, the stuff made from plant stalks, grass and possibly manure, becomes more of a reality, then we can talk. It seems that if harnessed, this mix of grasses could be the most efficient plant-based fuel.

There isn’t enough corn to justify solely investing in corn-based ethanol. The USDA estimates that 19 percent of the 2007 corn crop will become ethanol, an increase from 14 percent in the last year. The Energy Department has a goal of 30 percent by 2030. But even if we converted all of our corn into ethanol, it would replace just 12 percent of gasoline use. We can spare some corn, considering the mountains of the crop we currently produce. But do we want to?

Because we do have large amounts of government-subsidized corn going to waste, using it to power your car is better than letting it rot. But pouring $5 billion into corn (Pollan’s figure) shouldn’t be government policy. How about not growing so much in the first place? Through incentives, the USDA should encourage farmers to diversify (Soybeans would seem a better energy crop). This may cause some difficulty at first, but would benefit the U.S. in the long run. Governement isn’t about taking the path of least resistance. Just ask tobacco farmers.

This may be a case where common sense prevails. Does fueling your car with corn really seem like a good idea? Food is meant to power humans, not vehicles. And sure, those vehicles could be tractors that harvest food, but why not end this loop of inefficiency and put those government subsidies into researching truly green energy sources that don’t chew up our food supply. Because from where I stand, ethanol seems like a waste.

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One Comment

  1. Denise
    Posted August 4, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan,

    I know I’m late to this post, but I’ve just recently stumbled upon your blog. I urge you to do more research on ethanol. I know it’s not the only solution, but I do feel it can be a piece of the puzzle.

    It doesn’t use the part of the grain that we/cattle eat. There is still a byproduct of Dried Distiller’s Grain to be fed to cattle.

    Cornell’s research is reported to have included the energy that the farmer used driving his truck to town to get lunch, and the energy used to cook that lunch.

    The thing is it’s a technology we have now, and it’s something to build off of. Perhaps switchgrass will be a better solution. But look at what Brazil has done by putting forth the effort to become energy independent! The have tripled their output of ethanol from one acre of sugar cane in 30 years.

    You are correct, it will never meet all our fuel needs. But hopefully it can help be a part of it.

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