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Ethanol: Growing Food, Feed, Fiber, and Fuel?

Evidence Growing That Using Corn to Help Fill Gas Tanks Might Not Be the Best Use of Crops, Tech, and Scarce Taxpayer Dollars

Excerpted from the book Food Fight. To learn more about the Farm Bill and purchase a copy of Food Fight please visit

Most analysts agree that we are rapidly approaching “peak oil,” the point when the volume of global oil production begins to decline. In response, Farm Bill programs have promoted a shift to liquid “biofuels” and “biomass” energy derived from farms. The Renewable Fuels Standard of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, for instance, boosted the country’s ethanol production by mandating that up to 36 billion gallons be blended into gasoline by 2022. But taxpayers have been investing in this industry for decades via corn subsidies, import tariffs, tax credits for every gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline, loan guarantees, construction cost-shares, and gas pump upgrades. For politicians and lobbyists, ethanol became a sacred cow, untouchable, because of the belief that these public investments would 1) support farmers, 2) reduce dependence on foreign oil (currently about 60 percent of U.S. oil consumption), 3) cut greenhouse gas emissions, and 4) strengthen national defense.

The high costs of these policies – $17 billion between 2005 and 2009 alone – are now being viewed in a more critical light.

The Mounting Case Against Corn

By early 2011, drums were finally beating inside the nation’s capital for a repeal of ethanol subsidies and tax breaks that were sucking up $7 billion per year or more from American taxpayers. Some Iowa counties were reportedly receiving up to $26,800 per rural household in ethanol subsidies, despite evidence that using corn to help fill gas tanks might not be the best use of crops, technology, and scarce taxpayer dollars.

First is the simple energy in, energy out equation. In other words, the amount of power you actually get out of ethanol for what’s required to grow and refine it. Recent analyses reveal that when all of the “well to wheel” inputs of growing, fertilizing, irrigating, harvesting, drying, and processing are tallied, at least two-thirds of a gallon of oil are needed to produce a gallon of ethanol (roughly a 33 percent “net energy balance”).

The bulk of energy used to make ethanol currently comes from coal- or natural gas-fired power plants. Which makes you wonder, how renewable can the fuel be if you need nonrenewable energy to produce it?

Depending on which life cycle assessment you read (there are dozens to ponder), the shift from hydrocarbon- to carbohydrate-based fuels could either ease particulate emissions and global warming significantly or actually make things far worse. In 2005, Dan Kaman of the University of California at Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group reported a 10 to 15 percent per mile reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol. On the same campus, Tad Patzak argued that in its present form, ethanol produces 50 percent more carbon dioxide and sulfur emissions (along with lung and eye irritants) than fossil fuels. According to Michael Bomford of Kentucky State University, the differences between studies almost entirely depend upon how researchers assess the value of the byproduct livestock feed (the “leftovers” from milling plants into ethanol, called dried distiller grains and solubles or DDGS, are often fed to livestock).

The Case for Conservation

Even the most ardent proponents admit that, at best, biofuels can only ever be a part of a diversified energy future. There is simply not enough french fry grease to satisfy the world’s diesel addiction, and only so much arable land. Already about 30 million acres or 36 percent of the U.S. corn crop (the equivalent of all the cropland in Iowa and then some) is dedicated to ethanol corn – but the output is displacing a mere 8 percent of gas.

The same amount of gasoline could have been displaced simply by increasing fleet-wide fuel economy just 1.1 miles per gallon. (And that would have saved American taxpayers nearly $20 billion between 2005 and 2011 alone.)

Clearly, increasing fuel efficiency and cultivating a public consciousness around conservation is a more effective way to reduce gasoline use than corn ethanol. Some other common sense ways that the Environmental Working Group reports could improve gas mileage without a costly ethanol industry include common sense car maintenance (regular oil changes, proper tire inflation, and filter replacements), better all-around driving habits that avoid excessive speeding and acceleration, and higher industry standards for fuel efficiency.

If helping small farmers diversify their economic portfolios was another goal of federal policy makers, ethanol has failed to deliver. What began as a movement of farmer-owned and -operated small-scale plants has given way to facilities dominated by global giants like Archer Daniels Midland, Broin, and ICM, Inc.

Graphic courtesy Watershed Media

Ethanol’s Stewardship Legacy?

Food prices are on the rise around the globe. Land values throughout the Corn Belt are skyrocketing. And the grim reality is sinking in that even if the entire U.S. corn crop were distilled into liquid fuel, it would still supply less than 20 percent of domestic demand. Conservationists worry about the vulnerability of transforming every potentially productive acre – including land set aside for conservation and protected grasslands and parklands – into some form of biofuel monoculture.

Any benefits of the ethanol boom – increased farm revenue, significant reductions in subsidy payments, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and a more diversified fuel supply – come with a potentially unaffordable environmental price tag. As the demand for fuel corn pushes farmers to intensify their land use, soil and water quality are starting to suffer.

Some optimists hope that farming standards can prevent the worst damage. In 2011, European countries agreed upon standards for sustainable cultivating and harvesting of biofuel crops. Similar efforts have stalled, however, in the United States, where there is still no consensus on what constitutes “sustainable” farming practices. There are also legitimate concerns that over-harvesting “crop residues” like wheat straw, corn stalks, etc., eventually will impoverish the soil. Sir Albert Howard, the early-20th-century pioneer of the organic and sustainable farming movements, called this “The Law of Return,” where “what comes from the soil must return to the soil.” Organic matter must be added back into soil for it to stay productive. In addition, harvesting cellulose from lands now set aside to protect wildlife could have devastating consequences to biodiversity and reverse decades of gains made by Farm Bill conservation programs.

Before we continue to subsidize biofuels, we must ask ourselves:

  • How much further will federal mandates for biofuel production drive idled lands into production?
  • Will parks, forests, and other public lands become vulnerable to energy exploitation and food production?
  • How will bio-refineries manage the challenges of seasonality, storage, and transport of crops?
  • What are the long-term consequences of “super weeds” now resistant to herbicides used in genetically engineered crops?
  • Will food and energy shortages feed on one another?
  • Can subsidies be structured to protect farmers during price falls, and to protect taxpayers from huge payouts to biofuels producers that no longer need them?

Perhaps a long-term benefit will emerge from all this, once ethanol ceases to be a way for huge corporations to profitably dump excess corn, and a more logical energy order arises. A sensible biofuel movement could evolve, embracing a diversification of fuel and nonfuel crops on landscapes that include crop rotations, streamside protection, the maintenance of healthy soils, and abundant wildlife habitat and wild areas.

Dan Imhoff
Daniel Imhoff is the author of Food Fight:The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill and numerous essays and books, including CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories;Farming with the Wild: Enhancing Biodiversity on Farms and Ranches; and Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. He is the co-founder of Watershed Media, a nonprofit research institution and publishing house, and co-founder of the Wild Farm Alliance, a national organization that promotes farming systems that accommodate wild nature. He lives on a small homestead farm in northern California.

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