The cost of ethanol addiction
The ethanol gold rush is helping raise food prices and land use without curbing environmental harm.
Sunday, March 6, 2011 - 16:24
GROWING GREEN: The ethanol industry will increase land use and topsoil depletion in response to rising market prices. (Photo: elizabethrozycki/Flickr)
Just a few years ago, American subsidized corn flowed in astounding surplus. Now, shortages of cereal grains like corn and wheat have spawned skyrocketing global food prices and subsequently rising poverty. What's fueling the fire? Ironically, a major catalyst is lucrative agribusiness in the name of green energy.
Volatile weather patterns and oil prices surely account for some of these commodity shortages, but the most controllable factor worsening the crisis is ethanol production. Fuel corn is more lucrative than edible corn; American farmers are increasingly choosing to plant for vehicles rather than for humans, despite the energy deficit this fuel crop may create.
In result, this corn is making human fuel harder to come by. The USDA predicts consumer food prices will rise at least three to four percent over the course of 2011 and remain high in 2012.
Such fuel economics fail to recognize the most viable, carbon-reducing source of biofuel would be waste. I consulted New York Times environmental reporter Matt Wald on this issue, who verified that: "The idea of using ethanol from plants like corn or palm oil doesn't make much sense. Waste, on the other hand — that's where the future is."
In fact, New York is already considering a major energy initiative to convert wastewater and sewage into fuel, and city officials hope to have a contract in place by 2013. Biofuel from waste is a cheap option for solving several problems at once — especially in a city like New York, which produces 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily. But then there's all that money in ethanol production ...
The USDA chief economist Joe Glauber told Reuters stubbornly that "the [ethanol] industry has pretty much been built. This isn't a question of just saying 'cut it off.' It's much more complicated than that." He explained further there was little to be done in the short term to force firms to discontinue ethanol production.
Aside from the economic momentum for ethanol, political incentives are just as strong. For example, the Iowa caucuses have been the first major event of the presidential nomination process since 1972. No presidential nominee wants to start off in last place, so candidates continue telling Iowa they will support ethanol. What's more, biofuel is often used synonymously with support for green, responsible energy. Many of these politicians fail to mention that the snowballing ethanol industry raises serious environmental concerns.
The land spoiled in the name of this "green" fuel is staggering. Amid the ethanol gold rush, corn and grain farmers are increasing their land use by a whopping 9.8 million additional acres in 2011. U.S. corn production will soar to a record-breaking 13.73 billion bushels this year, while grains in stockpiles for consumption will still be limited due to rising food demand. So as ethanol producers squander more and more land, edible corn producers will hastily grab more acres, as well, in response to high prices and rising global demand.
And on all this land, corn farming will characteristically pummel the soil with fertilizer and petroleum-based inputs, not to mention the water it sucks from dry areas of the country. Many studies conflict on whether this process creates a negative energy balance. Reports have shown ethanol to require up to 57 percent more energy to grow than it releases in fuel form, while other studies point out the recently improved efficiency and yield of this crop.
Regardless, the amount of inputs and land use required for ethanol production far outweighs the reduced emissions it brings; such an extractive renewable energy source is not a viable foundation for a stable future of clean fuel.
Ethanol may be lucrative for groups of farmers, but the economic and environmental costs of converting food into fuel have never been so high. While corn-infused processed food and corn-fed meat aren't industries to champion, the pervasiveness of corn in food isn't something society can erase overnight; in the short term, people must be able to afford food the next few years. Already, higher food prices will push 44 million people around the globe into extreme poverty.
U.S. food production must lessen its over-dependence on corn — especially in the meat industry — but ethanol cannot be the reason for doing so. If the ethanol industry continues growing without restriction, it will infringe on much more than food prices in the future as land and energy are increasingly squandered in the name of green fuel.
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