THE BLOG

Gas, Grass Or...Corn: Nobody Rides For Free

03/15/2007 02:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

George W. Bush and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are two-term presidents in the Americas with mangled diction, scandal-ridden administrations, a disregard for the environment, and a penchant for denial. Now they have something else in common: a misguided push to produce ethanol from food crops.

Last week, the USA's Bush and Brazil's Lula announced a new energy partnership between the two countries to promote the production of ethanol through technology sharing, increased investment, and the development of common international standards for biofuel. The U.S. currently produces most of its ethanol from corn, while Brazil makes its firewater from sugar cane.

Bush hopes that ethanol will help reduce North America's dependence on oil, diversify its energy sources, strengthen regional ties, put a little green paint on his administration's shameful environmental legacy, and perhaps woo some Latin American hearts away from arch-nemesis Hugo Chavez. Brazil is energy self-sufficient at this point, but Lula sees ethanol as an important export for his country and wants to boost Brazil's economic output. GNP growth has been sluggish during his years in office while crime and dissatisfaction are booming.

Unfortunately, large-scale production of biofuel from corn, sugar cane, soybeans and other food crops could disrupt world food supplies and add to deforestation in tropical countries. And if the latter occurs, the carbon release from deforestation will outweigh the claimed biofuel benefits of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Biofuel is a good idea, but using food to make it is not. Bush and Lula are looking for ethanol in all the wrong places (and a few of the right ones). There are alternatives, mentioned below.

Meanwhile, corn-fed biofuel is already nibbling at your lunch and may soon eat it. We may be seeing the beginning of an epic struggle between food and fuel. Earth Policy Institute's Lester R. Brown has called it a competition for grain between 800,000 motorists and the two billion poorest people on the planet.

The ethanol boom is underway, sparked by rising oil prices and technological breakthroughs, and heated up by government subsidies and tariffs. And it's affecting our dinner table. The price of a bushel of corn has reached its highest level in a decade. Some food and beverage prices have been affected, since so many items contain corn products. Animal feed costs have risen, reducing projected beef and chicken production. And in Mexico, rising international corn prices led to a "tortilla crisis" and President Felipe Calderon ended up capping the price of tortillas in January.

So, what is this ethanol stuff?

Ethanol is ethyl alcohol and is burned in American "flex-fuel" vehicles (FFVs) in mixtures such as E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline blend) and E70 (70% ethanol), and in regular car engines in smaller percentages (most California gas contains roughly 6%). Ethanol has 70% of the energy content of gasoline, so 1.4 gallons of ethanol are needed to replace each gallon of gasoline, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Brazil and the United States are the world leaders in ethanol production, and each nation produced about 4.2 billion gallons of it in 2005, according to industry trade group RFA (Renewable Fuels Assn.), followed by China (1.0 billion) and India (450 million).

In the U.S., ethanol demand is skyrocketing and so are corn futures. Last year, nearly 4.9 billion gallons were produced domestically and 5.4 billion consumed (434 million imported from Brazil), according to the RFA. The national boom is being pushed by subsidies: the U.S. grants a tax credit of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol to refiners who combine it with gasoline, and imposes a 54 cent-a-gallon tariff on ethanol imported from Brazil. Lula was hoping to charm Bush into doing away with the tariff, but no such luck.

Those 4.2 billion gallons produced domestically in 2005 came primarily from 13% of the U.S. corn crop (1.43 billion bushels), according to the U.S. Department of Energy (other studies vary). Bush has set a goal of U.S. production of 35 billion gallons of ethanol and other alternative fuels, such as soy-based biodiesel, by 2017. That's a lot of grain, and much more will be needed.

Last year, a research team led by the University of Minnesota's David Tilman concluded, "Devoting all 2005 U.S. corn and soybean production to ethanol and biodiesel would have offset 12% and 6.0% of U.S. gasoline and diesel demand, respectively." However, that doesn't include high energy inputs needed to make the biofuel. "Because of fossil energy required to produce ethanol and biodiesel, this change would provide a net energy gain equivalent to just 2.4% and 2.9% of U.S. gasoline and diesel consumption, respectively."

The U.S. corn crop accounts for some 40% of the global harvest and 70% of the world's corn exports, according to Lester Brown, who notes that annual U.S. corn exports of about 55 million tons account for nearly one fourth of world grain exports. "This unprecedented diversion of the world's leading grain crop to the production of fuel will affect food prices everywhere. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of wheat and rice, both because of consumer substitution among grains and because the crops compete for land," writes Brown. "Rising prices will affect not only products made directly from corn, such as breakfast cereals, but also those produced using corn, including milk, eggs, cheese, butter, poultry, pork, beef, yogurt, and ice cream. The risk is that soaring food prices could generate a consumer backlash against the fuel ethanol industry."

Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimental has commented, "abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning."

Greater promise lies with cellulosic ethanol, which is made from cellulose in trees and grasses. It has a much higher NEB or "net energy balance" than ethanol from either corn or sugar cane (NEB is the ratio of the biofuel's energy output to the energy input required to produce it). And it can be grown on degraded or marginal land. Unfortunately, it is currently difficult and expensive to produce (lowering the cost of cellulose enzymes is a major hurdle). Cellulosic ethanol is probably years away from being cost-effective, but biotech and agricultural firms in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Sweden are pouring money into R&D for this "green gold."

On the cellulosic front, another study led by University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman claims that mixtures of native perennial grasses and other flowering plants provide more usable energy per acre than either corn-grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel and are far better for the environment. "Biofuels made from high-diversity mixtures of prairie plants can reduce global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even when grown on infertile soils, they can provide a substantial portion of global energy needs, and leave fertile land for food production," comments Tilman in a National Science Foundation press release (the NSF co-sponsored the study; the findings were published in the Dec. 8, 2006 issue of the journal Science).

Tilman and his colleagues estimate that fuel made from this prairie biomass would yield 51 percent more energy per acre than ethanol from corn grown on fertile land. Fuels made from prairie biomass are "carbon negative" (producing and using them reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), whereas corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel are "carbon positive" and add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, although less so than fossil fuels, according to Tilman.

Tilman's team estimate that growing mixed prairie grasses on all of the world's degraded land could produce enough bioenergy to replace 13% of global petroleum consumption and 19 percent of global electricity consumption.

To his credit, the environmentally challenged Bush isn't just slinging corn. He's also been praising cellulosic ethanol and the biofuel potential of switchgrass, a North American prairie grass that has been the subject of much research. Canada is already using switchgrass to create pelletized fuel for stoves and furnaces, which will help substitute for oil, natural gas and propane needs. New Zealand wants to make "treethanol" from willows, which are fast-growing and can thrive in poor soil, and Sweden is keen on poplars.

It will be mostly win-win if biofuel is produced from grasses on marginal land, from agricultural and forestry waste, and from renewable forests. Biofuel can reduce energy costs for farmers, help rural populations become energy self-sufficient, and inspire reforestation efforts on degraded land.

Of course, there's another way to lower fuel consumption: energy conservation. Brown suggests raising fuel efficiency standards by 20 percent, and shifting to gas-electric hybrid cars which could take care of short-distance driving needs with electricity provided by new wind farms.

In terms of filling up our flex-fuel tanks, treethanol and prairie-grass biofuel may not be in the near-term scenario. And that's a pity: global energy demand is on the rise, and oil consumption is expected to increase 71% by 2030, according to the DOE. A staggering amount of acreage will be necessary to produce enough biofuel to offset a significant percentage of that oil. Yet using food crops to create ethanol or biodiesel is not such a hot idea when the earth's population is projected to reach 8.3 billion by 2030. We shouldn't be subsidizing rising food prices.

Bush needs to give up the corn and stay on the grass, in other words.

(Next blog: Brazil, already one of the world's major agricultural powers, wants to power up its ethanol production from sugar cane, which could cause deforestation, directly or indirectly, in the Center-West "cerrado" regions, the Amazon basin, and remaining stretches of Atlantic rain forest.)