Cars or corn? Ethanol debate starts to heat up

Is corn ethanol a cure-all for our energy woes?

Research studies are heavily weighted in favor of corn ethanol. Experts say it provides a cleaner-burning fuel; would lower U.S. dependence on foreign oil; is inexpensive to produce, and would reinvigorate a lagging corn industry.

But is our hunger for alternative fuels going to slowly starve the world?

While the food vs. fuel argument is relatively new, environmentalists have voiced concerns for some time that converting corn into fuel uses more energy than it creates.

Now the grassroots, corn-versus-cars argument is leaking into the public consciousness via Internet articles, blogs and, lately, some mainstream-media attention.

The voice behind the movement is agricultural economist Lester Brown, once described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.”

President of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., Brown served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and as an adviser to the Secretary of Agriculture on foreign agricultural policy.

His articles on the corn-ethanol issue appear online at CNNMoney.com, TheGlobalist.com and in the magazine The National Review. A Google search under his name and the topic turns up 49,200 hits.

At the core of Brown’s argument is a USDA projection that world grain use will grow by 20 million tons in 2006. The economist projects that 14 million tons will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States, leaving only 6 million tons to satisfy the world’s growing food needs.

Troy Bredenkamp, executive vice president for the Colorado Farm Bureau, bristled at Brown’s theory.

“That’s hogwash. The vast majority of corn being grown today is not being used for consumption. It’s being used for livestock  feed.

“The other thing often forgotten is, when you are creating ethanol from things such as corn, it doesn’t require the whole kernel. About 40 percent of the total mass goes back to livestock in the form of feed.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, growing more crops for food in the United States is not the answer to world hunger. A 2004 study by that organization found the best solution was to improve availability of locally produced food. This practice often resulted in rising incomes and additional improvements to food security.

Profits from plants

Ethanol is created by fermenting and distilling starch crops that have been converted into simple sugars. Although it can be produced from virtually any biological feedstock, from sugar cane to wine grapes, corn is preferred because of its low cost and high startch content.

Steve Koontz, associate professor of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University, said the conversion process removes only starch from the corn, not the proteins, fat and other nutrients.

The remaining mash has an average protein content typically three times higher than that of the original corn kernel, making it valuable as livestock and poultry feed.

Brown also voices concern that government subsidies of ethanol production, at 51 cents per gallon, “tempt farmers to sell crops to biofuel distilleries or, if they instead sell to food manufacturers, to demand higher prices than they otherwise would.”

Koontz agreed corn prices could rise, “which would be a good thing. Higher corn prices will mean more farmers will plant more acres.”

Colorado has never been able to produce as much corn as is consumed in the state. Last year, Colorado imported 47 million bushels of corn. If local corn production increases, more ethanol money will stay in the state.

But consumers will probably feel the price increase more in the cost of their steaks than their cornflakes. The cost of processing, packaging and shipping accounts for more than 90 percent of commercial grain-based products.

“Most of what you pay for bread or corn starch isn’t in the cost of the commodity,´ said Koontz.

At least half of meat and egg prices, however, are incurred by feed and other on-farm expenses.

Corn ethanol has already proved profitable to more than Northern Colorado farmers. Ethanol processing plants are springing up as fast as they can be built, providing an economic boost to rural areas.

Front Range Energy opened a $54 million ethanol plant in Windsor this spring. Sterling Ethanol LLC went online with a $54 million plant in November 2005 and is working on a $61 million plant in Yuma County, scheduled to open March 2007.

Other Colorado projects in the planning and permitting stage include Great Western Ethanol’s in Evans and Sun Energy’s in Walsh.

The Molson Coors brewery in Golden began producing ethanol from beer waste in 1996. It makes about 3 million gallons per year for company use and for sale to local wholesalers.

Koontz said the new plants will be a shot in the arm to Colorado farm growers suffering from the extended drought. “What the increase is going to do is create locations where there is distiller’s grain, and that’s going to help corn growers in certain areas, but it’s certainly not going to help the entire market.”

Monsanto may be able to help in that area.

The large producer of genetically modified seeds has developed new varieties of fermentable corn that show a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in the amount of ethanol produced, compared to common varieties grown in Colorado and throughout the Midwest.

Alternative alternatives

Bredenkamp is excited about a new experimental process that may entirely quell the food or fuel debate entirely.

“It’s five to 10 years away from being economically viable,” Bredenkamp said. “But there’s going to be a time when we’re going to take some of the overgrown forests and take that fuel, or the pine-beetle kill, and, through cellulosic technology, turn it into ethanol.”

Bredenkamp suggested “hundreds of thousands of (Conservation Reserve Program) land the government is paying us to grow nothing on” could be put back into production to create ethanol.

These so-called energy crops have higher ethanol yields and better energy balances than conventional starch crops. Switchgrass, one likely candidate, requires minimal irrigation, fertilizer or herbicides, but yields two to three times more ethanol per acre than does corn. Because switchgrass can be harvested on marginal land, its production avoids the conversion of healthy cropland or forests to energy-crop production.

Cellulosic technology also might help end the notion that it requires more energy to create ethanol than is created.

“That’s pure nonsense,” Bredenkamp said. “The one study that does shows it losing is by a gentleman (who) keeps updating his worst-case-scenarios. He charges the calories consumed by the farmer over the entire season as an energy input (into ethanol’s production). He even charges the energy it takes to build the John Deere tractor. It would be like charging the earth the energy to squeeze the oil. All the other studies show it being a net benefit.”

The “gentleman” is David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. In a report first published 25 years ago and regularly updated, Pimental concluded “corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.”

Bredenkamp pointed to a 2002 USDA study by the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses that concluded for every BTU dedicated to producing ethanol there was a 34 percent energy gain.

Buried in both Brown and Pimentel’s treatises are calls to pursue other alternative fuel sources.

Brown states a case for hybrid cars and investing heavily in wind farms, while Pimental advocates producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells and wind power, as well as burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion.