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Corn Ethanol Isn't the Answer
A Green America Exposé
Back before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth sparked a
firestorm of public concern about global warming, the Bush administration was content to sit back and proclaim that it was waiting for “science” to determine whether climate change really existed. Now that scientists worldwide have stepped up and left no doubt in the minds of most Americans, the administration can no longer ignore global warming and hope it’ll go away. So it’s come up with a way to save the day—corn ethanol. And everyone from
car manufacturers to farmers to everyday citizens seem to be jumping on ethanol’s bandwagon.
But is corn ethanol truly the cure-all for everything from the climate crisis to air pollution to US dependence on foreign oil?
We at Green America say it’s not even close.
No panacea for the climate crisis
While corn-based ethanol has been touted as a way to solve the climate crisis, it simply isn’t a major improvement over gasoline when it comes to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
In the US today, about 95 percent of our ethanol is derived from corn kernels. Because corn is such an energy-intensive plant to grow, and because the methods to process corn into ethanol are also energy intensive, it takes seven barrels of oil to produce eight barrels of corn ethanol, from field to processing plant, according to research by the traditionally right-leaning Cato Institute. So when you factor in production, ethanol curbs climate-changing vehicle emissions by a mere 12 percent over gasoline, according to a 2006 University of Minnesota study by Jason Hill and David Tilman. (With blends like E85—85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gas—that emissions reduction plummets to 2 percent.) And that’s only if the corn is grown on existing fields. Converting wildlife preserves to cropland to grow more ethanol would result in a net greenhouse gas release that would exacerbate global warming and negate any benefit, Hill told the University of Minnesota’s alumni magazine.
An earlier study published in BioScience in 2005 concurs with Hill and Tilman’s findings. The researchers looked at the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, cropland area requirements, and other environmental consequences of growing corn and sugarcane to produce fuel ethanol, and found that “the environmental impacts far exceed any value in developing this energy resource on a large scale.”
Even a 12 percent emissions reduction is rather poor in comparison with other biofuels such as biodiesel, which cuts emissions by 41 percent over diesel (51 percent over gasoline)—including soybean production, say Tilman and Hill. While not an ideal fuel source, soybeans can be grown with much less energy and far fewer chemicals than corn.
No solution to oil independence
One of ethanol’s main selling points is that it will heighten US security by reducing our dependence on oil imports from countries potentially harboring terrorists. But the fact is, growing that much corn for ethanol would make impossible demands on our agricultural land.
The USDA estimates that 90.5 millions acres of corn will be planted in 2007 (up 12 million from 2006), but even if all of this corn were used for ethanol, it would only satisfy about 16 percent of our annual fuel needs. Any attempt to replace the 200 billion gallons of fuel used by US drivers each year with corn ethanol would require that 675 million additional acres, or 71 percent of America’s current farmland, be used to grow corn, according to Popular Mechanics.
All told, these statistics reveal that corn ethanol could never hold out the prospect of energy independence.
Creating a global food crisis
Experts are sounding the alarm that boosting corn ethanol production could pose a grave danger to the world’s food supply. Remember, corn isn’t just the corn-on-the-cob or canned corn we pick up at the market. It gets turned into animal feed to provide beef and dairy products. It’s in nearly every processed food in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, as well as corn-based foods like tortillas.
The price of yellow corn on the world market has already hit a ten-year high, in part due to ethanol’s rising popularity, says the BBC.
But while having the price of Doritos and hamburgers go up in the US hardly seems like a crisis, consider the domino effect. The US corn crop accounts for 40 percent of the global harvest, supplying 70 percent of the world’s corn exports and about 25 percent of total world grain exports, according to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). Substantially reducing this export flow to make corn ethanol for our cars “would send shock waves throughout the world economy,” says Lester Brown, EPI’s founder.
Corn prices are tied to other grain prices, so as the cost of corn rises, world grain prices will likely follow suit. While US consumers, particularly low-income families, will see significant hikes in food prices, the world’s poor, who rely heavily on imported grain, will be hit the hardest. In May, Ian Cherret, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that people in Guatemala were facing a hunger crisis, due in large part to the rising cost of corn. The average benchmark price for corn in Guatemala rose almost 30 percent in the last year.
“The increase in the price of maize has left this sector of the population much more vulnerable than they were before,” Cherret told Reuters.
And while the world’s poorest would be sent reeling by exorbitant grain prices, we in the US wouldn’t even gain all that much: Converting the entire US grain harvest to corn for ethanol would satisfy 16 percent of our fuel needs, while the corn used to fill a 25-gallon vehicle tank with ethanol one time would feed one person for an entire year, says Brown.
A danger to our health and the Earth
Growing corn at the scale required to switch a significant amount of fuel in the US to ethanol could have devastating environmental effects. Corn requires more toxic pesticides and fertilizers than any other US food crops, according to the New York Times. Chlorpyrifos, the most commonly applied pesticide on corn, is banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for household use, and EPA studies have linked chlorpyrifos to brain damage in rats. The EPA has also classified Atrazine, the most commonly used herbicide on corn, as a possible carcinogen. Nitrogen, a main ingredient in corn fertilizers, encourages algae growth in saltwater, creating oxygen-starved “dead zones”—including a 12,000-foot dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—that threaten aquatic life and water quality in coastal regions.
Nitrogen runoff from farms is also contaminating water wells around the country. A 1998 study by the National Center for Environmental Health found that 13 percent of the domestic drinking-water wells in the Midwest contained unsafe levels of nitrates, which can cause birth defects.
In addition, groups like the Sierra Club note that ethanol produces even more smog than gasoline, contributing to the poor air quality that’s behind increased instances of childhood asthma and lung problems in adults. A recent study by Stanford University atmospheric scientist Mark Z. Jacobson concluded that “a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline,” as widespread use could cause possible increases in respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is the main player in the ethanol sector, responsible for about 40 percent of US ethanol production—and its environmental record is nothing to be proud of. According to the nonprofit Corpwatch, ADM is currently under investigation for approximately 25 violations of Superfund laws. ADM has been cited several times by the EPA for flouting the Clean Air Act, including 52 plant violations resulting in a $351 million settlement with the EPA and US Department of Justice in 2003, one of the largest such settlements on record. In 2002, ADM landed in the top ten of the Political Economy Research Institute’s Toxic 100 index, which ranks the nation’s largest companies based on pollution levels. And in 2006, Ceres measured how 100 leading global companies are responding to global warming, looking at board oversight, public disclosure, emissions accounting, and strategic performance. On a 0 to 100 scale, ADM scored a dismal total of 12 points.
ADM and its competitors Cargill and Dunge are also behind 60 percent of the financing of soy production in Brazil, which has resulted in the deforestation of 1.2 million hectares of Amazon rainforest, says Greenpeace International.
An increase in GMO corn crops
In the 2005-2006 growing season, 61 percent of corn planted in the US was genetically modified in some way, and that percentage increases every year. Ramping up corn production to make ethanol means a greater increase in the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), because it’s industrial agri corporations that will dominate the sector, argue Miguel Alitieriof the University of California–Berkeley, and Elizabeth Bravo of the Transgenics-Free Latin America Network.
As demand for corn increases, biotechnology companies are developing new breeds of corn intended specifically for conversion into ethanol. These agribusiness giants are already using their GMO technology to gain a stranglehold on the booming ethanol industry. Corporate behemoth Monsanto has teamed up with Cargill to form Renessen, a biotechnology and processing company that is designing a new breed of GMO corn for ethanol production. The MAVERA “high value” corn plant is genetically engineered to increase starch content, and it can only be processed in a specific manufacturing plant designed by Renessen. Likewise, because the Renessen plant is engineered to produce ethanol from MAVERA corn,
farmers who want to sell to Renessen will have to purchase corn from Renessen.
GMO opponents protest the use of any GMO crop, because the risks to human health and the environment simply aren’t known. “The unintended effects of genetic engineering are hard to predict, but they include increasing the level of natural toxins in the corn, creating novel toxins through mutations that genetic engineering causes, and lowering nutritional content,” says Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. GMO crops can cross-pollinate and therefore contaminate non GMO plants, which Freese says threatens biodiversity.
Because GMO crops are often designed to be pesticide- and herbicide-resistant, farmers can put massive amounts of chemicals on their crops without killing them, resulting in an increase in herbicide use on GMO crops. A 1999 study by Benbrook Consulting, which reviewed over 8,000 university-run field tests, showed that farmers growing a Round-Up- resistant GMO soybean applied two to five times more chemicals than conventional farmers.
In addition, a 2007 study commissioned by Greenpeace found that rats fed for 90 days on Monsanto’s “MON863” maize—a GMO variety authorized for human and animal consumption—showed “signs of toxicity” in the liver and kidneys. While more studies are needed to confirm these findings, it’s clear to many food safety experts that we need to be growing fewer, not more, GMO crops.
A sucker punch for family farmers
Ethanol proponents argue that higher corn prices are good for small-scale farmers. Indeed, the price of corn rose 55 percent in 2005 alone. But there’s more to the story than that statistic reveals.
When corn prices rise, animal feed prices for dairy and meat farmers rise along with it. So far this year, these US farmers have been hit hard by a 25 percent rise in feed costs.
And though corn farmers are being paid more for their harvest, they don’t stand to profit as much as those who turn that corn into ethanol, and processing plants are being increasingly consolidated into the hands of agribusiness giants like ADM.
“In 2000, about 80 percent of all new ethanol plants were farmer-owned,” David Morris of the Institute for Local Self Reliance told Minnesota Public Radio. “In 2006, of those ethanol plants that are now planned and will be operational in the next 12 to 24 months, only 20 percent were farmer-owned.”
As corn prices continue to rise, Tom Philipot of Maverick Farms, an organization supporting sustainable agriculture, predicts that farmer-owned cooperatives are likely to be forced to sell to “deep-pocketed” corporations like ADM. In addition, corporations also dominate the biotechnology used to grow much of the corn, as noted above. Companies like Monsanto and Cargill are likely to increase the cost for ethanol “breeds” of corn, such as MAVERA, squeezing out any advantage to family farmers.
“So you have farmers who are going to be forced to grow a specific breed of corn if they want to be able to sell their harvest,” says Eric Holt-Gimenez of the FoodFirst Institute, “and even if they choose not to, and to sell elsewhere, there’s a high probability that their crops will be contaminated by GMO corn. So what you’ve got is the consolidation of industry down to specific technology, which hurts small farmers.”
Standing in the way of
While they show no signs of curtailing the massive subsidies to corn farmers and corn ethanol producers, politicians are beginning to talk about the promise of cellulosic ethanol. A switch to cellulosic ethanol, which could be made from plant waste matter including corn stalks, grass, and woodchips, would result in an 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to gasoline—far preferable to corn ethanol’s paltry 12 percent. Plus, most studies have shown cellulosic ethanol to be about 80 percent more efficient than corn ethanol.
However, even while people speak about the future of cellulosic ethanol, ADM and other corporations continue to move full steam ahead toward a corn ethanol infrastructure, supported by continuing government corn and corn ethanol subsidies. In fact, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Renewable Fuels Standard, which offer various supports and incentives for “alternative” fuels, promote corn ethanol above other fuels, because more cars can already accept it and more plants are currently producing it. And 45 states have laws encouraging corn ethanol use and production. Doug Koplow of the International Institute for Sustainable Development estimates that total government support for corn ethanol comes to between $820 million and $1.4 billion per year.
With ADM and the powerful agri-corp lobby building corn ethanol infrastructure as fast as they can, it’s going to be very difficult to make a meaningful shift to more climate-friendly cellulosic ethanol. The methods used to make corn ethanol differ so widely from those for cellulosic ethanol, that the 80 new corn ethanol plants slated for production in 2007 alone will be useless in making cellulosic ethanol.
“We’re committing ourselves to decades of dependence on corn ethanol,” says Freese. “Once you build that infrastructure, you pen yourself in. We can’t use those same corn ethanol plants to process cellulosic ethanol.”
Stop the ethanol insanity
Environmental and food advocates agree—the full-throttle movement towards corn ethanol has to come to a halt, fast. Holt-Gimenez sees consumers and activists playing an important role: “If we want to stop this current trend toward monoculture and corporate domination, we need people to urgently mobilize around this issue.”
In the face of congressional enthusiasm over corn ethanol, it’s up to us to sound the alarm that this is the wrong direction for our country. There are far better solutions to the climate crisis and oil independence.
“Anyone can see by looking at the characteristics of the different biofuels that corn ethanol isn’t ‘green,’” says Alisa Gravitz, Green America’s executive director. “You don’t have to crunch numbers very long to conclude that ethanol isn’t a fuel solution for people or the planet. As a country, we should be moving towards driving less, improving fuel economy, and advancing plug-in hybrids powered by electricity from renewable, green sources.”
—Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist and Tracy Fernandez Rysavy