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U.S. should reconsider its food-crops-to-ethanol policy

REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Drought-stricken corn near Paris, Mo.

As America’s corn and soybean crops wither in the current drought, it is time to reconsider our policy of mandating the conversion of a large portion of those crops into ethanol for our gas tanks. Even in a bountiful crop year, there is little sense in a food-for-fuel policy that will take nearly half of our corn crop for less than 10 percent of our gasoline supply. It can be sustained only by subsidies and mandates, which increase prices for grains and the beef, poultry and other products that depend on grain supplies.

In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) which established a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The RFS required increased production of biofuels on a schedule that reaches 36 million annual gallons of biofuels by 2022, including 16 billion gallons of ethanol from non-food sources like cellulose and algae. There is no effective production process for biofuels from cellulose and algae, and actual production of those biofuels is now at less than 5 percent of the current EISA schedule.

As a result, Congress asked the National Research Council (NRC) to investigate our entire biofuel program. The NRC convened a committee of 16 experts to provide an independent assessment of the economic and environmental benefits and concerns associated with achieving the mandated RFS. The committee drew on its own expertise and solicited input from many experts in federal agencies, academia, trade associations, stakeholders’ groups and nongovernmental organizations. Its report has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists.

Schedule ‘unlikely to be met’

Its conclusion notes that “absent major technological innovation, the RFS schedule for cellulosic biofuels is unlikely to be met.” The report suggests that a combination of an oil price above $191/barrel and technological breakthroughs will be needed for any biofuels to be cost competitive with petroleum-based fuels.

The report also states, “Air quality modeling suggests that production and use of ethanol as fuel to displace gasoline is likely to increase such air pollutants as particulate matter, ozone, and sulfur oxides.”

Another study led by Nobel chemist Paul Crutzen reported that growing some of the most commonly used biofuel crops releases around twice the amount of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) than previously thought — thereby wiping out any benefits from not using fossil fuels. Molecule for molecule, N2O has 300 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The California Air Resources Board(CARB) has reached similar conclusions. Its report also notes that  “Ethanol production has the potential to create starvation and destabilize local food economies. The Amazon Rainforest is being bulldozed to create sugarcane crops for fuels — the net effect of this activity is to destroy the tropical sinks for carbon, destabilize local indigenous populations, and could create food insecurity. Using corn based ethanol to meet the requirements of California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard(LCFS) could have far reaching effects on national security due to the destabilizing nature of starvation on national governments. Since corn is such a critical food staple, corn based ethanol would have significant impacts. The LCFS, on an ethanol path, could create backsliding on air quality issues since ethanol looks like it increases ozone levels.”

Professor Tad Patzek is the author of several biofuel studies at the Universities of California and Texas. He puts it simply, “In terms of renewable fuels, ethanol is the worst solution. It has the highest energy cost with the least benefit.”

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society. He teaches classes on energy for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program. His new fall quarter class is No. 15037, “Update on Fukushima and the Iran Nuclear Program.”


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/06/2012 - 10:11 am.

    The Truth About Ethanol


    Thanks for telling the truth about ethanol.

    A life cycle assessment of ethanol clearly indicates that subsidies (government promotion at taxpayer expense) for ethanol production should have been halted years ago. The end of the ethanol boondoggle is long overdue.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/06/2012 - 10:46 am.

    Food to fuel

    Has already begun to be reassessed. Still, ethanol might not be a panacea, but it certainly has a place in bridging our fossil fuel dependence to something more sustainable. Not all sources of ethanol are a boondoggle.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/06/2012 - 11:12 am.

      Perhaps it should have been honestly assessed upfront.

      Even Al Gore got the word back in 2010.

      “Al Gore’s Ethanol Epiphany
      He concedes the industry he promoted serves no useful purpose.”

      Excerpt below.

      Welcome to the college of converts, Mr. Vice President. “It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol,” Al Gore told a gathering of clean energy financiers in Greece this week. The benefits of ethanol are “trivial,” he added, but “It’s hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.”

      No kidding, and Mr. Gore said he knows from experience: “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for President.”

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/06/2012 - 10:48 am.

    Using a food crop as fuel

    There seems to be something wrong with virtually all the theories and processes underlying the conversion of plant matter to fuel.

    Even worse, when the plant matter is FOOD, sooner or later this will put us in an ethical bind – are we willing to divert food to fuel production in a time of food shortage or famine ?? Is our attachment to our automobiles more important than the health or survival of other people ??

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/06/2012 - 12:26 pm.

    It also releases carbon–where is the green in that?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/06/2012 - 02:14 pm.

      Releasing carbon

      It’s not enough to consider whether something releases carbon. It’s more important to know where that carbon came from. Fossil fuel burning releases carbon that had otherwise been sequestered for eons. This is a problem because it increases the net surface/atmospheric carbon. Ethanol burning releases carbon from plants that only recently (within a growing season, or at least only a few growing seasons) sequestered the carbon. It’s generally not a problem to release recently sequestered carbon–if it was, we’d all have to consider stopping breathing (good for the planet, bad for the species).

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/07/2012 - 02:39 pm.

        More to it

        It is also not enough to just look at the carbon released from burning the corn ethanol. A number of studies have found that when you include the carbon impact of converting land for use in growing corn and the entire growing and distributing process (i.e. because it is so corrosive, corn ethanol can’t go through pipelines and must be trucked), corn ethanol actually has a higher carbon footprint than gasoline.

        Next time you are in Wisconsin, go buy some ethanol-free gas. Not only will it be better for the environment, but you will get better mileage and won’t be damaging your fuel line.

  5. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/06/2012 - 02:59 pm.

    And consumes water

    According to the USDA, quoted in a 2009 report by the Argonne National Laboratory, 3 gallons of water are consumed for each gallon of corn ethanol produced. Seems kind of piggy.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/06/2012 - 03:36 pm.

      How much water does it take to produce a gallon of gasoline?

      Somewhere between 2.6 and 6.2 gallons, if it’s made from the the Alberta oil sands oil most commonly refined and sold in Minnesota.

  6. Submitted by Joel Fischer on 08/06/2012 - 06:44 pm.

    The problem here…

    Is that corn, such as pictured above, is not a ‘food’ crop.

  7. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/06/2012 - 08:59 pm.

    Precisely my point

    The great green alternative corn ethanol consumes about the same amount of water per gallon as producing fuels from petroleum. Hardly seems to be the fuel of the future, in this respect and others.

  8. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/06/2012 - 09:47 pm.

    142 gallons of water per ethanol gallon in the US

    The most complete study of water use from crop to finished gallon of ethanol was accomplished under Professor Sangwon Suh of the Water Resources Science and Department of Bioproducts and
    Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota. It broke down the water use by state, showing the highest use in states with more irrigation. On average in the US it takes 142 gallons of water to make ONE gallon of corn ethanol. States like Iowa and Minnesota have less irrigation and use ranges from 9 to 19 gal of water per ethanol gallon. In Kansas and Nebraska it rise to 500 gallons of water, and California is tops with over 2100 gallons. In much of the Midwest, the whole corn to ethanol process is a big drain on the Ogallala aquifer.

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