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

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Originally published in 2007, “Food Fight” is Daniel Imhoff's highly acclaimed primer on the complex issues contained within the Farm Bill. Now in a newly updated and expanded edition, Imhoff looks ahead at this important issue, as the debate for 2012 is already underway.
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A 1.1 mpg increase in passenger vehicle fuel efficiency would save as many gallons of oil as all the ethanol produced today. 
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Ethanol can be made from feed crops such as corn, or cellulosic sources such as grasses, leftover corn stalks, and other woody materials with no food value. Today, most corn ethanol is produced in dry grind factories, which consume less energy than earlier generation wet mill plants. The corn is dried, milled, and then fermented and later distilled into ethanol.
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The United States has the largest global land area planted in biotechnology varieties, followed by Brazil and Argentina.

Every five to seven years, Congress passes a little understood legislation called the Farm Bill. To a large extent, the Farm Bill writes the rules and sets the playing field for America’s contemporary food system, determining what we eat, how much it costs, and where it is grown. You may not be happy with what you learn. In this excerpt from Daniel Imhoff’s Food Fight (Watershed Media, 2012), read about why corn ethanol — once a beacon of hope for Americans concerned about peak oil — may not be the cure for our fuel-dependency woes. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 17, “Ethanol: Growing Food, Feed, Fiber, and Fuel?” Stop by our online store’s promotional page to purchase Food Fight at a 25-percent discount until the end of 2012. 

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. Voters and politicians can no longer ignore facts such as:

  • In 2010, 36 percent of the U.S. corn crop was turned into ethanol, but that only constituted 8 percent of the nation’s gasoline.
  • A 1.1 mpg increase in passenger vehicle fuel efficiency would save as many gallons of oil as all the ethanol produced today. (See more ways to boost the U.S. fuel economy in the Image Gallery.)

Feed Crop Versus Cellulosic Ethanol

Ethanol can be made from feed crops such as corn, or cellulosic sources such as grasses, leftover corn stalks, and other woody materials with no food value. Today, most corn ethanol is produced in dry grind factories, which consume less energy than earlier generation wet mill plants. The corn is dried, milled, and then fermented and later distilled into ethanol. The leftover co-products, called dried distiller grains and solubles (DDGS), are fed to livestock. After a major expansion of dry-grind facilities over the course of the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills, the United States has become the world’s largest ethanol producer, even selling its surplus to Brazil, whose once prolific sugar-based biofuel industry has declined in recent years.

Making ethanol from stalks and grass is a bit more challenging. It takes an extra step to separate the plant’s lignin from the cellulose. Extra energy is also required during distilling. On the plus side, the lignin can be used instead of fossil fuels as an energy source for distillation.

The notion of a sustainable ethanol industry is predicated on a massive shift from annual crops like corn, sorghum, and soybeans to perennial native plants such as switchgrass, forest “thinnings,” or high-biomass perennial crops like Chinese myscanthus—cellulose sources that theoretically won’t require excessive plowing or chemicals to pump up yields. It’s a compelling notion. But it may be more hype than reality. Despite years of government mandates, no cellulosic ethanol plants are close to operating commercially, even as we continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort. And in reality, cellulosic crops don’t have to be made into ethanol to displace fossil fuels. A more efficient alternative might be to convert them directly into electricity, a process that is much more efficient, can be achieved with existing technology, and could displace coal and natural gas. Reports show, for example, that an electric car can go twice as far on the energy from a given quantity of wood or switchgrass as an equivalent vehicle powered by ethanol.

The Mounting Case Against Corn Ethanol

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.

(Learn more about the resources dedicated to biofuels in the United States in The Grain Ethanol Gold Rush.)

The Case for Conservation Awareness

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 (the equivalent of all the cropland in Iowa and then some) are 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. Here are some other common sense ways that the Environmental Working Group reports could improve gas mileage without a costly ethanol industry: common sense car maintenance including 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, one of the most vocal ethanol advocates and most prolific beneficiaries of ethanol subsidies. Spurred on by mandates and incentives from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the federal Renewable Fuels Standard, and the California Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), engineering firms like Broin and ICM have joined the grain-based ethanol gold rush.  Dozens of relatively small “dry grind” plants (15 to 30 million gallons per year) have been erected in proximity to large grain supplies, thanks in no small part to a slew of government subsidies.

(Read more about the benefits and challenges of biofuels in Bio-based Energy: Pros and Cons.)

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 corn 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. Cover cropping, crop rotations, and other natural methods will become essential not just for biofuel production but for all of agriculture.

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. Here are just a few guiding questions:

  • 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?
  • What about other sources of cellulose, such as the Municipal Waste Stream or forest thinning, that could prevent immense agricultural expansion?

Perhaps a long-term benefit will emerge from all this, once corn 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.

GMO Designer Fuels: In a Station Near You

Genetically modified (GMO) fuel crops—plants that have been altered through the gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology—are already in your gas tank. As of 2009, 85 percent of the U.S. corn crop and upward of 80 percent of all soybeans planted were genetically modified varieties, primarily approved for animal feed rather than human consumption. With consumers in Europe, Japan, Mexico, and Africa increasingly reluctant to allow GMO crops inside their borders, the rapidly expanding North American biofuels industry is set to become a convenient outlet. (Learn more about which countries are participating in the biotechnology boom in the Image Gallery.)

Rival seed giants Monsanto and DuPont have been jockeying for market share with conventionally bred corn varieties that boast higher starch content to maximize ethanol production. But most experts acknowledge that corn has its limitations (and negative ecological implications) as a fuel source. So some are turning to biotechnology for alternatives.

“More miles to the acre” may be the new mantra of biotech agribusiness firms eager to cash in on the biofuel craze in at least two different ways: (1) modifying the genetic structure of plants to make fermentation easier; (2) boosting yields of both annual and perennial crops. Syngenta, for example, has its sights set on “self-processing” corn.

Each transgenic kernel would carry an amylase enzyme that is currently added separately to starch at the ethanol plant. To pull this off, engineers have inserted a gene from a heat tolerant thermotrophic microbe that lives near hot-water vents on the ocean floor. Meanwhile, DuPont and Bunge have engaged in a joint venture to genetically engineer soybeans for biodiesel and other uses.

Researchers are also branching out into perennial plants such as fast-growing poplar trees and dense grasses such as the Chinese miscanthus, which promoters tout can grow 20 tons of biomass per acre with little fertilizer or irrigation. California-based Ceres Corporation has been breeding switchgrass, a Prairie States native, so that it would need even less fertilizer and irrigation and require infrequent replanting.

Another goal of biotech firms is to reduce the amount of lignin that holds plant cells together. Removing lignin presently complicates turning cellulose into ethanol. But it’s also nature’s way of endowing plants with the stiffness to grow upright. Needless to say, the prospect of unleashing a new genetic trait such as “droopiness” onto the landscape is raising the hackles of scientists, botanists, legal activists, and other observers.

Even the conventional agriculture community is cautioning against a massive increase in intensive corn farming. Many fear that the abandonment of crop rotations could strain the soil, tax water resources, and lead to a buildup of insects or vulnerability to disease. The emergence of “super weeds” resistant to the herbicide Roundup is causing a return to even more toxic herbicides.

At the same time, the spread of new and relatively untested GMO energy crops holds its own set of complications. The transfer of exotic genes and enzymes from energy crops to the human food supply or to the wild is entirely possible. Pollen transfer in open fields between the same types of crops or their wild plant relatives is a naturally occurring and uncontrollable phenomenon. The intermingling of seed is also almost impossible to prevent. This has been soundly proven with StarLink corn (approved only for animal consumption, it has surfaced in tortilla chips). More recently, herbicide-resistant Liberty Link rice contaminated conventional supplies and resulted in plummeting sales for U.S. farmers. Such contaminations—of plants and seed banks—are essentially irreversible. There are health implications as well. Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., reports that some amylase can induce allergy and requires further study.

The biotech industry seems poised to go to great lengths to produce fuel from agriculture. The question we all need to ask is whether our national addiction to liquid fuels and automobiles could possibly be worth such risks.

The concentration of plant gene patents in the hands of just a few global corporations most concerns Dave Henson, an expert on genetically modified crops. “GMO biofuel conglomerates have the potential to become the next OPEC,” cautions Henson. “Controlling patents and the seed supply means these giants are no longer just grain brokers and dealers, but will have the power to exercise control over growers and communities all over the world.”

More from Food Fight: American Farmers: An Endangered Species 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Food Fight, published by Watershed Media, 2012. Visit the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store’s promotional page before the end of 2012 to buy Food Fight at a 25-percent discount.