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

Corn ethanol is being used more and more as a fuel, but important debates over feed crops, food prices and the fuel efficiency of various biofuels may limit its future use.

| May 3, 2012


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.


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.

abbey bend
6/7/2012 12:31:57 AM

Letting the market be free and work itself out! What a novel idea in today's world!! We can only hope it comes to pass!!! Thanks Gerald. :)

abbey bend
6/7/2012 12:30:03 AM

Important to note, octane is just one additive to gasoline. It is used to reduce detonation and it not the main ingredient. The math you are using is interesting, but not an accurate method of determining changes in mileage of blended gasoline. When alcohol is added to gasoline, it depends on the engine as to how much change in mileage you actually have because of the alcohol. Granted it is never to the plus side, but it is far from a simple calculation!

abbey bend
6/6/2012 10:51:03 PM

Reasonable article, shows one of the many reasons to not use corn based alcohol as fuel. We are no where near "Peak Oil" at this time, since this concept was erroneously introduced, we have discovered in just North America alone, 1.5 trillion barrels of oil that can be harvested.

will wiese
6/6/2012 6:29:00 PM

@ Gerald Naughton, Americans spend a $Billion a day for foreign oil! Ethanol has reduced demand and kept the price down from what OPEC would have us pay. Methanol is another alcohol fuel that can be used in internal combustion engines, that would reduce our consumption of petroleum. Do some research... Google 'Open Fuel Standards Act of 2011'. This is US legislation that would mandate a certain percentage of new cars sold in the USA to be able to use an alternatve fuel. Alcohol fuels with gasoline in a 'flex fuel' vehicle. Ford Motor Company developed the first true flex fuel vehicle. Electric vehicles would also meet the auto manufacturer's percentage for the mandate. We need more domestic energy, not foreign oil from people that don't like us very much.

john ledoux
5/24/2012 9:25:56 PM

Less corn for ethanol, more corn for animal feed. At $6.00 a bu and the high cost of gas and diesel, is why the price of meat is high.

james camuso
5/13/2012 12:49:55 AM

If we could get the government to admit that hemp was outlawed by Dupont and W. Randolf Hearst for profiteering in the 40's we would have a sustainable alternative for corn that would not need any subsidizing. More crops per year with vital nutrients for soil health returned to the earth because only the stalks are used. Better paper pulp fiber and less petroleum products in our lives.

gerald naughton
5/8/2012 1:44:38 AM

That was refreshing. Maybe the author would comment on the idea of, instead of figuring out which solution to mandate next, we just ditch the Farm Bill (and ethanol mandates and subsidies), pocket the $100 BILLION a year we spend on it, and let the market work? Cheers. GEN

t brandt
5/5/2012 2:11:22 PM

An excellent review of the problems & shortcomings of the blended gasoline/EtOH concept. But maybe the most telling point of how silly the govt requirements are is in the simple arithmetic: you get 10% worse mileage from a gallon of 10% EtOH/ gas mixture. That means if you get 20mpg on straight octane, then you'd get only 18mpg on the ethanol mix which contains 0.9 gal of octane. To finish driving the full 20 miles, you'd need an extra 0.11 gal of mix, which contains 0.1 gal of octane. Simple addition: 0.9 gal + 0.1 gal = 1.0 gal of octane = the same 1.0 gal lof straight octane you would have used to drive the 20 mile, ie- no savings of petroleum at all!

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