Top 5 Myths About Corn-Based Ethanol

Going green — By on November 11, 2008 at 11:10 pm
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Corn fields - for food or fuel?

Over the past year, alarming articles have been published linking high food prices to the demand for the alternative fuel, corn-based ethanol. Some have even positioned the issue as one of rich vs. poor. Rich Americans demand cheaper fuel for their gas-hogging SUVs, and then poor residents in other nations around the world go to bed with empty stomachs. What are the real implications of producing corn-based ethanol? Are we literally taking food out of the hands of the most needy people in the world so that we can cheaply drive our lazy butts around?

Let’s separate fact from fiction. Here are the Top 5 Myths About Corn-Based Ethanol:

1. Corn-based ethanol is a “green” alternative to foreign oil. False. Studies have shown that it requires almost as much energy to produce as it releases when it is burned. When you add in the environmental costs of plowing, using water resources, fertilizers and more to grow the corn (an etimated 11 acres a year per vehicle), corn-based ethanol is not environmentally-neutral as many would believe. Some people advocate sugar cane or cellulosic ethanol, instead of corn-based ethanol. But many of the same factors come into play – cutting down trees to grow crops and the need to separately transport ethanol via tanker-trucks instead of along pipelines. All of these raise serious environmental questions.

2. The new pressure to produce corn-based ethanol is correlated to high food prices. False. The United States Department of Agriculture has confirmed that over 80% of food costs is based on the manufacturing, packaging, distributing and retailing of food products. Plus, even more importantly, livestock feed can be generated from the by-product of creating corn-based ethanol. Many people are blaming the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association for the scare of fuel vs. food. Among many causes of the high food prices include: the cost of gasoline to transport from field to market, global warming, increased use of grains (like corn) to feed livestock, and increased demand from economies that are gaining power, including India and China.

3. Corn-based ethanol is cheaper than fuel from refined oil. If only! This one is false too. In August 2008, ethanol sold for about $2.40 a gallon wholesale. Currently, gasoline is about the same cost, and may go lower. Notwithstanding the fluctuations in gasoline prices, ethanol yields about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly. That means that you will have to re-fuel more frequently. Over the long run, gasoline is less expensive than corn-based ethanol.

ry3d480 300x200 Top 5 Myths About Corn Based Ethanol

Central Oregon Corn Fields

4. You will have to convert your vehicle to run on ethanol. Mostly False. If you live in the United States, you are already using ethanol in your gas-tank, like it or not. However, the current ratio of ethanol to gasoline is about 10-90%. In order to use special ethanol mixes of 15-85%, you will, in fact, need a flex-fuel car. If it was me, I would save my money on the flex-fuel vehicle and wait for the introduction of plug-in electric hybrids!

5. There will be less global warming as a result of fueling our cars with corn-based ethanol. False. This may be the most disturbing myth of them all. While the greenhouse emissions from vehicles fueled by an ethanol-blend (whether 90-10 or 85-15) are lower, the journal Science recently published an article in which it stated that corn-based ethanol would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, compared to fossil fuels. This is due largely to the effects of cutting down trees which absorb CO2 emissions in order to grow crops. Also of consideration is the amount of fuel required for farm tractors and other equipment to plant, harvest and fertilize the plants. The Wall Street Journal joined in the negative press by claiming that ethanol is a “scam” of the same magnitude as silicon breast implants and the pesticide Alar.

What is a consumer to do? Get educated! Peachy Green is a great place to start, as we are constantly bringing you new articles on environmental issues. Write to your congressperson – tell them to cut government subsidies for corn-based ethanol and instead funnel taxpayers’ money to greener transportation alternatives, such as plug-in vehicles and/or solar-powered cars. Of course, you can always step up your efforts to drive less. Telecommute, if you can. Carpool or use mass transit. Walk!

We would love to hear whether you support or oppose use of corn-based ethanol. Is it the role of the government to subsidize mid-Western famers for these crops? Is there another alternative?

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7 Comments

  1. Michael Winks says:

    Ok, you asked, I’ll answer.

    The Science piece, led by a lawyer named Searchinger, not a scientist, posed a hypothetical based in hysteria- what if we knocked down every rainforest in the name of making biofuel? BTW, most of the critiques about rainforest and biofuel should be directed at biodiesel. For example, 2-3 percent of the arable land in Brazil is used to grow the sugar that keeps the country energy independent. The land is far far away from the rainforests. Rainforest destruction is due to factors such as cattle ranching, tree logging and soy plantations (for food to be exported to rich countries).

    Which brings me to the main point. the USA makes food to be exported to rich countries and countries that can pay for our food. If poor countries cannot pay for our food, then they either starve or begin growing food themselves. Growing food for themselves is what always should have happened and used to happen until profit making scum and World Bank and so on got in on the act. Make food for export, they chimed, then you can buy your food from others for cheap! What a system. And it has nothing to do with ethanol. Ethanol is made from surplus corn ( did you know last year we had one and a half billion bushels of corn lying around at the end of the season? Not given to animals or ethanol? No, I don’t suppose that got much media play. But you can check with anyone in the farm country. Oh, wait, the farm country is just a bunch of big corporations, right? Wrong. Most ethanol is produced by farmer cooperatives.

    The production of ethanol takes the FEED corn (not corn for eating) and turns it into fuel and distillers grains. There is also leftover yeast, which is food. The grains can be animal feed or if you don’t like cows getting better quality feed than straight corn (80 percent of corn is fed to animals) you can put the DDGs on your soil, improve soil qualify and keep away weeds. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? BUT, because it is plugged into industrial agriculture’s wasteful, polluting ways, ethanol is blamed. That’s not getting to the root of the problem, that’s blaming a byproduct.

    When you throw away industrial agriculture and switch to organic agriculture, the mix changes. When you make ethanol smaller scale, the mix changes. You can power your plant with renewable wood, you can produce more food if the co2 released from the plant is funneled into greenhouses growing produce. You can use the excess yeast for food. IN permaculture, nothing is a waste, it’s just a product we haven’t found a use for. And if you are making ethanol in your community, not just in the Midwest, you are NOT worrying about transporting anything. (BTW, what does it cost in pollution and such to transport oil from foreign countries? What does it cost us to do the damage we are doing in Nigeria?) Doing nothing is the biggest sin, letting big corporations tell us what to do is the biggest sin. Making alcohol is old as humankind, we can do it ourselves and we don’t need corporations to do it for us.

    When you grow crops in water, kelp or cattails, you are not taking away arable land. When you harvest pimelon, buffalo gourd, prickly pear, mesquite pods in the desert, you are not taking away available land and if managed properly, the desert terrain can be enhanced. When you are taking waste donuts, baked goods and such, you are taking trash and making it into fuel. When you take methane from landfill and power your plant, you are working efficiently. So there is no reason to cut down forests to grow crops. We have plenty of land/water to do the job.

    What else? Oh, yes, I have (when I have access) run my car on 50 % ethanol without modifications. No problems whatsoever. Car companies are just dealing with liability issues when they tell you not to use more ethanol. Fact is, you may even get better mileage with higher amounts of ethanol. There have been rumors that the oil companies are producing lower quality fuel to mix with ethanol so they can blame the ethanol for the problem.
    the 30 percent less energy is a myth because BTU’s do not power engines. BTUs are about heat. Ethanol is more efficient. If the 30 percent less energy “fact” were true, then EVERY car would get 30 percent less mileage… and they don’t. It varies and you can make adjustments in your car’s engine to improve mileage, if you are clever.

    Ah subsidies. Recently they revealed subsidies for ethanol have a greater return on taxes because of the jobs provided, the money invested in the community, and so on. Whereas the vaunted oil company tax breaks (subsidies) and military protection of oil bases, if taken away, would mean $10 a gallon gas. Even now. Ethanol keeps our money at home. This is one good reason not to go buying Brazilian ethanol, when we have the opportunity to do it ourselves.

    I refer you here for more information.
    http://www.alcoholcanbeagas.com?bid=2&aid=CD8&opt=

    Good luck in your education. Other websites include biopact.com, ilsr.org.
    Plug in vehicles use power from polluting power plants. It will take decades to change that. And decades to change our auto motive stock. And tons of copper.
    Perhaps ethanol is a better here and now situation.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Michelle, I appreciate your comment. And I do believe that we have thoroughly researched the corn-based ethanol issue, considering all the information that is out there. I am most persuaded by the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the issue. Among the facts that I find most striking are: (1) if we are to run all of America’s vehicles on 100% ethanol, we would cover 97% of the land in the country with cornfields; (2) not all communities have the right soil on which to grow corn for biofuel; (3) fields have to remain fallow for a period of time after crops have been grown on them; and (4) organic farming – while laudable – is not going to happen on most of these fields because of the cost and time associated with it.

    We are always looking for green alternatives to common issues here at PeachyGreen. I was a believer in ethanol production and its use until I started digging deeper. Certainly there are a few benefits of corn-based ethanol over gasoline/fossil fuels, but the overall balance does not appear to be in favor of the earth.

    The answer is not to push any ethanol out of consideration, but to think about it. Ask questions. Consider – WHAT ELSE? In my book, plug-in electric hybrids which run on little or no fuel at all will be the future. Particularly with the advent of more solar and wind power that will be generating the clean, green electricity. But that is just my opinion.

    I am interested in hearing what others have to say as well. Again, we very much appreciate you sharing your perspective.

    Stephanie

  3. Mike says:

    Yes – in your fifth myth – that Science article was roundly and quickly discredited. Even by folks who aren’t big fans of ethanol. It was all “speculation” and not science-based, which is too bad. We need a good discussion in this area.

    That John Stossel video almost makes me laugh – it is such a bad piece with only ONE source – a source who is anti-ethanol and anti-renewable fuels regardless of where they come from. I agree that it would be nice to not have to mandate change – but without that federal push we’d be left with more of the same because the oil industry controls the energy market. The energy market is NOT a free and open market. If it were, we’d already have alternatives.

    Myth #3 – Yes, ethanol is cheaper than gas and with one exception, it always has been (it’s value is based, in part, off gas prices). The exception was when California and other states quickly banned the additive MTBE, an oil-based product that pollutes ground water. That caused a spike in ethanol demand and prices were actually higher than gas. After a couple of months, though, the market evened out and ethanol returned it its normal price below gas. (MTBE is an oxygenate meant to help gas burn cleaner – but ethanol does a way better job and is much safer.)

  4. Mike says:

    @Stephanie – I appreciate your response to Mr. Winks. However, the goal with corn-based ethanol is not to replace ALL gasoline in this country. On the contrary, corn-based ethanol’s goal is about 10-15 percent replacement. After that, ethanol from other sources – such as cellulose – will grow the sector to about 25 percent of the gasoline market. After that, who knows.

    Certainly some of the media coverage and political noise 18-24 months ago made it sound like corn-based ethanol was “the answer” – but corn growers have always said that ethanol is just a part of the answer. Yet it’s an important part because the entire infrastructure for liquid alternative fuels is being built on the back of this biofuel.

    If the goal is to increase renewable fuels, etc., then corn-based ethanol is simply the start – not the end. Unfortunately, those that go first often get shot at the most, and that’s what is happening right now.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Well, I am glad that the discussion is continuing. People need to consider different viewpoints and that is great that you disagree with the 5 Myths about Corn-Based Ethanol we set forth in the article. A healthy debate will warn consumers about going off in the direction of the “next best thing,” which for a long time was considered to be corn-based ethanol. As you point out Mike, biofuel is not out and we are just starting to see the possibilities. Sugar biofuel, cellulose biofuel and even algae biofuel appear to have less of an environmental impact than corn-based ethanol.

    Regardless of what you think of John Stossel or the author of the peer-reviewed Science Journal piece, I think that the consumer and the tax-payer has to take serious note of the question – why do we need tax-incentives for corn farmers, if this corn-based ethanol is the magic bullet that it was touted to be?

    The bottom line is that we do need to think about other ways of fueling our vehicles. In doing so, we need to look at both the benefits and drawbacks of the options. Not a single one will get us out of the foreign oil mess – yet.

    I hope that others join in this conversaton. It has been great reading the comments from those in the industry.

    Stephanie

  6. Michael Winks says:

    Dear Stephanie
    I am not in the industry. I edited a book about small scale ethanol production. The book busts a lot of myths and you need to read sections. You can get a sense by reading what is available online at the website.

    From Mr. Blume’s site

    “Myth #5: Big Corporations Get All Those Ethanol Subsidies, and
    Taxpayers Get Nothing in Return!

    Between 1968 and 2000, oil companies received subsidies of $149.6 billion, compared to ethanol’s paltry $116.6 million. The subsidies alcohol did receive have worked extremely well in bringing maturity to the industry. Farmer-owned cooperatives now produce the majority of alcohol fuel in the U.S. Farmer-owners pay themselves premium prices for their corn and then pay themselves a dividend on the alcohol profit.

    The increased economic activity derived from alcohol fuel production has turned out to be crucial to the survival of noncorporate farmers, and the amounts of money they spend in their communities on goods and services and taxes for schools have been much higher in areas with an ethanol plant. Plus, between $3 and $6 in tax receipts are generated for every dollar of ethanol subsidy. The rate of return can be much higher in rural communities, where re-spending within the community produces a multiplier factor of up to 22 times for each alcohol fuel subsidy dollar. ”

    Stephanie, my hope is people will make small scale stills all around the country and I’m afraid I have to repeat myself, from sustainable crops grown in water and from whatever is in your region. There is a new report on distributed energy at ilsr.org I commend you to read. The other way to fuel our vehicles is here. It just needs to be provided sensibly and by us, not big corporations. Please keep me out of any “industry” as I don’t like being associated with it.

    Organic farming can indeed happen, if there is political will as many studies have shown it is more productive and more helpful to the planet. Rather than plan for pie in the sky dreams about battery powered cars (whoa, have we got a waste problem there!) let’s heal the earth, grow the crops, grow the fuel, take actions that result in carbon negative energy. Why settle for what we have?-dirty polluting toxic fossil fuels

    “Not all the communities have the right soil to grow corn.” Stephanie, did you read my post? Sheeesh. It’s frustrating to blog because all my remarks get cherry picked and the rest somehow get ignored. THis is a complex issue.
    Check out the Iowa State report on subsidies I mentioned and you’ll see how complex it gets.
    Agricultural experts, permaculturists, know about soil ecology and protecting the nutrients. Fields do not have to remain fallow, the crops need to be rotated. The crops could be Jerusalem artichokes, sorghum, fodder beets, and such crops as can be grown at higher latitudes and of course, rotated.

    The Wall Street Journal has always supported the oil industry. FYI.

  7. I appreciate you writing about alcohol as a fuel. If you didn’t, I might not have, either. However, I disagree with much of what you said here.

    I dealt with your arguments in more detail on my blog at http://lovehatephoenix.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/peachy-greens-analysis-of-ethanol-assumes-some-myths/ .

    In short, I would say that you are basing your arguments on a number of assumptions about how things are done in an oil-based economy. But, if you start to question the assumptions that oil forces on us, you begin to realize we wouldn’t need to produce alcohol in the manner your research assumes it would be produced.

    For instance, corn is a very bad choice of crop for alcohol production. Yet, your article fails to even mention this. There are much better crops that could be used.

    Also, if we were producing enough alcohol fuel, we wouldn’t need to be burning fossil fuels in order to create it. So your arguments regarding energy inputs vs. outputs fails.

    Until recently, I would have been in agreement with you. However, in the interim I read David Blume’s “Alcohol Can Be A Gas”. I highly recommend it.

    Keep up the good work with your blog, though. It’s very interesting. I like it.

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