21. The Problems With Corn Ethanol

Approximately 1% (one percent!) of the corn grown in the US becomes food for people.  The rest becomes cattle feed, “food supplements” (which I’m guessing means high fructose corn syrup — not what I exactly think of as a “supplement”), and a full 40%  of it becomes corn ethanol which is added to gasoline and burned in our automobiles.

If corn ethanol actually fought pollution and gave us energy independence while still allowing all to be fed, this would arguably be justifiable.  But in fact, none of these conditions prevail.

It is indeed established that ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, so auto exhaust from gas blended with ethanol produces significantly less greenhouse-gas tailpipe emissions than pure gasoline.  However, when one looks at the fossil-fuel energy used to refine the corn into ethanol, the complete “lifecycle” pollution caused by having this fuel makes ethanol’s total GHG pollution as close to even with pure gasoline as makes no significant difference.

There are also other ecological problems associated with commodity corn-growing.  Congress passed the ethanol mandate in 2005 and strengthened it in 2007.  A Scientific American article in Feb. 2013 noted that between 2006 and 2011, this resulted in 530,000 acres of marginal, highly-erosive land being converted from edge-of-field prairie into growing corn for ethanol.  This greatly increased soil erosion, and erosion-caused run-off of poisonous farm chemicals into surface water, contaminating waterways all the way downstream until it ultimately increased the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.  It also greatly reduced habitat for butterflies and pollinators:  genetically modified ethanol corn is a major contributor to the current precipitous decline of monarch butterflies and indispensable bees as well as other beneficial insects, songbirds, and so on.

Growing corn for ethanol, in short, is not good for climate control while being really bad for the environment in various other ways.

Nor does corn ethanol contribute to energy independence.  The amount of fuel needed for the US fleet of internal-combustion-engine cars is so great that even 40% of our corn farmland contributes only a few percent of it, and this is effectively negated by the additional fossil fuel we import to refine the corn into ethanol plus the fact that ethanol-blended gas gets lower mileage than gasoline alone.

It must be noted that the problem here is corn ethanol, not ethanol per se.  In tropical Brazil, for example, ethanol is produced from sugar cane stalks, which have a higher sugar content than corn kernels, and whose sugar is easier to extract — and the bagasse that remains is then burned to produce electricity;  this is arguably a benign and useful scheme.  Also, there are efforts to derive ethanol from the cellulose of the native perennial prairie plant switchgrass, the growing of which would conserve water and sequester carbon and minimize pollution, or to get it from the cellulose of corn stalks instead of corn kernels as is done now.  But despite considerable efforts, no researchers have yet developed a technology to economically extract ethanol from cellulose.  Our corn ethanol comes from the kernels, and represents land that could have fed people instead.

In a world in which about one-eighth of humanity is occasionally or chronically hungry, it is simply unacceptable to divert farmland that could feed people into growing fuel that neither decreases pollution nor decreases the use of fossil fuel, but in fact, due to the economics of farm subsidies, actually increases the price of the corn that is available for the poor to eat.  I did note one ethanol-subsidy-apologist essay which opined that since so small a percentage of our corn crop becomes food, its price can’t make much difference — but this  completely misses the point that a much bigger percentage of our corn crop ought to become food.

I would not have a problem with mixing gasoline with ethanol derived from cellulose, so long as doing so did not take over cropland that could grow food (using corn stalk cellulose after the kernels fed people would be great).  But for feeding the world, the US corn ethanol mandate which uses corn kernels has got to go.  Iowa farmers need and deserve ways to make a living without the ethanol mandate — but this should spur politicians to correct what the government subsidizes, not blindly reinforce a problematic status quo.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


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