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.
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?