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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 01:39 am

The beef with corn

Why biofuels, including ethanol, won’t fulfill our energy needs

Untitled Document Dwindling supplies of foreign oil, rising prices at the gas pump, and hype from politically connected U.S. agribusiness have combined to create a frenzied rush to convert food grains into ethanol fuel. The move is badly conceived and ill advised. Corporate spin and pork-barrel legislation aside, here, by the numbers, are the scientific reasons that corn won’t fulfill our energy needs:
First, using corn or any other biomass for ethanol requires huge regions of fertile land, plus massive amounts of water and sunlight to maximize crop production. All green plants in the U.S. — crops, forests, and grasslands combined — collect about 32 quads (that’s 32 quadrillion BTUs) of sunlight energy per year. Meanwhile, the American population currently burns more than three times that amount of energy annually as fossil fuels! There isn’t even close to enough biomass in America to supply our biofuel needs. Second, biofuel enthusiasts — including agribusiness lobbyists, and PR firms — suggest that ethanol produced from corn and cellulosic biomass (such as grasses), could replace much of the oil used in the U.S. Consider that 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop was converted into 5 billion gallons of ethanol in 2006, but that amount replaced only 1 percent of U.S. oil consumption. If the entire national corn crop were used to make ethanol, it would replace a mere 7 percent of U.S. oil consumption — far from making the U.S. independent of foreign oil. Third, ethanol production is energy-intensive: Cornell University’s up-to-date analysis of the 14 energy inputs that go into corn production, plus the nine energy inputs invested in ethanol fermentation and distillation, confirms that more than 40 percent of the energy contained in 1 gallon of corn ethanol is expended to produce it. That expended energy to make ethanol comes mostly from highly valuable oil and natural gas. Some investigators conveniently omit several of these energy inputs required in corn production and processing, such as energy for farm labor, farm machinery, energy production of hybrid corn-seed, irrigation, and processing equipment. Omitting energy inputs wrongly suggests that a corn-ethanol production system offers a more positive energy return. In reality, corn is an inefficient choice from an energy-cost and transport standpoint. Cellulosic ethanol is also touted loudly as a replacement for corn ethanol. Unfortunately, cellulose biomass production requires major energy inputs to release minimal amounts of tightly bound starches and sugars needed to make fuel. About 70 percent more energy (coming again from precious oil and gas) is required to produce ethanol from cellulosic biomass than the ethanol produced. That makes cellulosic ethanol an even poorer performer than corn ethanol. Also, the production of corn ethanol is highly subsidized: State and federal governments pay out more than $6 billion per year in subsidies, according to a 2006 report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Geneva, Switzerland. These subsidies for a gallon of ethanol are more than 60 times those for a gallon of gasoline.
Moreover, the environmental impacts of corn-ethanol production are serious and diverse. These include severe soil erosion of valuable food cropland and the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides that pollute rivers. Fermenting corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol produces 12 gallons of noxious sewage effluent. Making ethanol requires the use of fossil fuels, releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and adding to global warming. Finally, the use of food crops such as corn to produce ethanol raises major nutritional and ethical concerns. Nearly 60 percent of the people on earth are currently malnourished, according to the World Health Organization. Growing crops for fuel squanders land, water, and energy that are vital for human food production. The use of corn for ethanol has led to major increases in the price of U.S. beef, chicken, pork, eggs, breads, cereals, and milk — a boon to agribusiness and bane to consumers. Jacques Diouf, director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, reports that the use of 22 pounds of corn to produce 1 gallon of ethanol is already causing food shortages for the world’s poor. One last set of statistics: The global population stands at 6.6 billion, and a quarter-million mouths to feed are added daily. Energy experts report that peak oil production has already been reached. As cheap oil supplies decline, fuel prices will rise, causing food prices to climb, too (because maximum agricultural production requires fossil-fuel inputs). As the global population soars to 8 or 9 billion around the middle of this century and as we burn more grain as fuel, shortages and production costs could cause grain prices to skyrocket, taking food from the mouths of the world’s poorest people. The science is clear: The use of corn and other biofuels to solve our energy problem is an ethically, economically, and environmentally unworkable sham.  

David Pimentel is a professor of entomology at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. © 2008 Blue Ridge Press
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