Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Kernel of Truth about Corn Ethanol

Ethanol has suddenly become the bĂȘte noir of renewable energy. First came the arguments that Congress was too heavily subsidizing a crop that, even if entirely converted to ethanol, could only replace 12% of our demand for gasoline. Then Science magazine published a study concluding that over its lifecycle ethanol creates more carbon emissions than gasoline. And now critics claim that ethanol production is causing food prices to rise. So much for the carbon-conscious, farmer-friendly fuel that was going to help make us energy independent. What went wrong?

The problem with corn ethanol is in the kernel. We already force-feed corn to naturally grass-eating cows, and contribute to the country’s obesity epidemic by dousing processed food with high-fructose corn syrup. Dietary alternatives to grass and sugar need not be replicated in the energy sector. Au contraire! The energy balance of corn ethanol is 1.3, compared to 8 for ethanol made from sugar cane, and up to 36 for cellulosic (such as switchgrass) ethanol. On the environmental side of the equation, corn ethanol creates 22% less emissions than gasoline, compared to 56% less for sugar cane, and 91% less for cellulosic. If we must, let’s keep making corn ethanol – with the stalks and leaves.

Advanced batteries and biofuels are the key to propelling our transportation sector out of a virtually complete (97%) dependence on oil. Congress is right to support biofuels, but should do so by setting energy balance and carbon emission goals, offering rewards accordingly, and then letting the market pick the winners.

Carolyn Avery


  1. Having grown up amongst endless fields of corn, I say no way to corn ethanol. Farmers need tons of petroleum based fertilizer to make the stuff; which runs off into ground wells, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico. Worst of all, the American taxpayer subsidizes the stuff by the billions.

    Switchgrass on the other hand is awesome. Lewis & Clark walked through the stuff when it grew to 6ft. across the Dakotas. It's a grassy weed that requires no fertilizers or subsidies (though I'm sure Sen. Harkin could find a way to subsidize grass). Existing corn ethanol plants can be converted to make cellulosic ehtanol and farmers barely need to tend fields of switchgrass. They can winter in Florida and reap checks from their wind farms and grassy fields. Talk about field of dreams!

  2. Corn based ethanol is good for farmers who for many years barely scratched a living trying to get by. Finally when corn is fetching a good price and farmers start making some money, everyone in Washington wants to pull the plug. The truth is that corn ethanol is good for hard working American farmers. If we can grow our own fuel in the American heartland, I'd rather buy that than oil from the middle east. Its cleaner burning than gasoline and cheaper too. Corn ethanol is opening up opportunities in the midwest with new ethanol plants. These are good paying jobs that keep young people in states like Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio. Also corn ethanol makes a good cattle feed from its coproduct. Despite what the author says, cows can eat it and fatten them up so that ranchers too can have a good year for a change.

  3. Anonymous misses the point. Farmers don't need to plant ever-increasingly large yields of corn to make a profit. In fact, you can get paid for leaving your fields fallow with switchgrass. Exisiting ethanol plans can be converted into cellulosic ethanol which has all of the advantages you claim corn ethanol has but more of it. It has the added benefit of being easier to grow, requiring no subsidies, expensive fertilizers, or pesticides. It's grass. It's time that farmers stood up to the Agri-monopoly and adopted new ways that make them independent.

  4. The government should stay out of the farm economy totally. Cut all of the subsidies and see who and what survives real competition. Corn is cheap because the taxpayers subsidize it. Cut it.

  5. You should visit hosted by Taxpayers for Common Sense to learn about wasteful government subisides for biofuels. If biofuels are economically feasible, they shouldn't require public dole.

  6. Outdated and ineffective farm policies waste billions of federal funds and no longer reflect the realities of 21st century agriculture. Essentially unchanged since being established over 70 years ago as temporary assistance measures during the Great Depression, current farm policies no longer reflect the needs of America’s farmers, rural communities, consumers, or the tax paying public. Billions of dollars are funneled each year to an increasingly small number of large farming operations, while the majority of farmers and rural residents see little. In the 1930s farmers accounted for 20 percent of the US population and agriculture made up nearly 8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Today, farmers make up less than 2 percent of the US population and agriculture accounts for less than 1 percent of GDP. Farms that once averaged nearly 200 acres now average close to 500 acres per farm.

    Dominated by an array of payment programs shelling out billions of dollars to a handful of the biggest corporate farms, America’s farm policy has become the longest ongoing welfare program in the country—a welfare program that harms the majority of farmers and non-farmers alike, and has a detrimental effect on international trade. The United States should set an example to the world that agriculture policy can be fairer, more productive, and fiscally responsible.

    Farm Policy Facts:

    Subsidy Payments Cost Taxpayers Billions:

    Between 1995 and 2005 federal farm subsidy payments totaled more than $164 billion.
    10 percent of recipients have collected 73 percent of all subsidies amounting to $120.5 billion since 1995.
    The largest 15% of subsidized farms took nearly two-thirds of all payments.
    Subsidies for ethanol (pdf) add an additional cost to taxpayers of five to eight billion dollars per year.
    Farm Policy Overwhelmingly Benefits Corporate Agribusiness:

    Only 1/3 of America’s farmers collect farm payments at all. Farmers who grow fruits, nuts, livestock and other foods instead of one of the “right” 15 program crops, receive nothing and successfully compete in the marketplace without government checks.
    For corn, soybeans and wheat, the wealthiest 10% of farms average $2.5 million in net worth, about ten times the wealth of the average U.S. household, and they receive half of the subsidy payments.
    According to the USDA, 8 percent of producers receive 78 percent of the subsidies.
    Of those receiving payments, 80 percent get less than $1,000 per year.
    In 2003, median wealth of farm households ($416,250) was five times the estimated median wealth of all U.S. households ($89,578), according to USDA.
    Subsidies Hurt Family Farms:

    The 2002 Farm Bill allocated fifteen times more funding for farm subsidies than for economic investment in all of rural America. Yet large farms that get the bulk of commodity payments comprise less than 1% of the rural population.
    Corporate consolidation has led to a dramatic loss of farms. In 1950 there were 5.5 million farms in the U.S. Currently, around 2 million remain. Farmland in production, however, has remained the same.
    Large operations receive the bulk of farm payments but comprise only 10 percent of U.S. farms.
    For the most subsidy-dependent U.S. counties, farm subsidies are associated with poor economic growth, according to a Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank economist.

  7. I disagree. The government should encourage emerging industries like cellulosic ethanol as part of a greater energy policy. If we set a national goal of reducing our dependency on carbon footprint, the marketplace won't just tag along. The government needs to make an initial investment in the infrastructure and R&D to jumpstart it.

  8. The blog post is about ethanol, not the farm bill. I agree with the author. The US should actively pursue ethanol, biodiesel, and cellulosic ethanol options because fossil fuels are running out and we need alternatives.

  9. As cited in a recent energy survey in The Economist (19 June 2008), advances in genetic engineering may render moot many of the current issues associated with biofuel production, whether originating from corn or other plants.

    In addition to corn, four crops - switchgrass, miscanthus, sugarcane, and sorghum - are currently favored for biofuel production because they all share a particularly efficient form of photosynthesis. Switchgrass and miscanthus are temperate crops, while sugarcane and sorghum are tropical. All four are currently being engineered to grow in a wider range of climates than each currently does.

    The same techniques can be used to allow biofuel crops to better withstand heat, cold, drought, salt, etc., potentially allowing them to be grown on land that is not suited for food crops anyway, thus reducing the competition between food and biofuel. A number of biotech firms are already working in this area, including Ceres (

    Second, fermenting sugar from crops to produce fuel does not necessarily mean using yeast to produce ethanol. Any number of microorganisms (both naturally occurring and genetically engineered) can also be applied to produce a wide range of products, including diesel fuel substitutes at a cost competitive with petroleum-based diesel.

    Finally I'd like to point out that while batteries are an important component of a comprehensive solution to dependence on petroleum, they simply shift energy production from internal combustion engines to centralized plants. Given that 70% of US electricity is currently produced from fossil fuels (though mostly from coal and natural gas rather than petroleum), if one of our overarching policy goals is to reduce carbon emissions then we also have to find a way to reduce our dependence on coal and natural gas, or at least the current generation of coal and gas-fired power stations.