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The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?

By Joe Romm  

"The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?"


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Bill Clinton warns: Too much ethanol could lead to food riots

corn.jpgI am not a fan of our corn ethanol policy as I made clear made clear during the last food crisis (see “The Fuel on the Hill” and “Can words describe how bad corn ethanol is?” and “Let them eat biofuels!“).  In a world of blatantly increasing food insecurity — driven by population, dietary trends, rising oil prices, and growing climate instability — America’s  policy of burning one third of our corn crop in our engines (soon to be 37% or more) is becoming increasingly untenable, if not unconscionable.

I was glad to see former Pres. Bill Clinton start talking about this in a Washington Post piece  headlined, “Clinton: Too much ethanol could lead to food riots” — though I tend to see the world’s increasing use of crops for fuel as an underlying cause for growing food insecurity, something that makes the whole food system more brittle and thus more vulnerable to triggering events, like once in 1000 100 year droughts and once in 500 year floods, which is to say climate instability (see WashPost, Lester Brown explain how extreme weather, climate change drive record food prices).

If you want to understand why it will be politically difficult to roll back US ethanol production to saner levels, Reuters has a good article, “Analysis: In food vs fuel debate, U.S. resolute on ethanol.”  Yet it is that piece which notes, “U.S. ethanol production this year will consume 15 percent of the world’s corn supply, up from 10 percent in 2008.”

Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton, had an excellent piece in the WashPost explaining “How biofuels contribute to the food crisis,” which I excerpt below:

Each year, the world demands more grain, and this year the world’s farms will not produce it. World food prices have surged above the food crisis levels of 2008. Millions more people will be malnourished, and hundreds of millions who are already hungry will eat less or give up other necessities. Food riots have started again.

Nearly all assessments of the 2008 food crisis assigned biofuels a meaningful role, but much of academia and the media ultimately agreed that the scale of the crisis resulted from a “perfect storm” of causes. Yet this “perfect storm” has re-formed not three years later. We should recognize the ways in which biofuels are driving it.

Demand for biofuels is almost doubling the challenge of producing more food. Since 2004, for every additional ton of grain needed to feed a growing world population, rising government requirements for ethanol from grain have demanded a matching ton. Brazil’s reliance on sugar ethanol and Europe’s on biodiesel have comparably increased growth rates in the demand for sugar and driven up demand for vegetable oil.

Agricultural production is keeping up in general with the growing demand for food — but it keeps up with the added demand for biofuels only if growing weather is good. A good growing year in 2008 helped end that year’s crisis, but average-to-poor weather since then has stressed inventories and confidence. Higher fuel costs for farmers and a weaker dollar contribute to higher prices, but prices soar only when large consumers, fearing that production will continue to fall short, bid up prices to secure their supplies.

Much of today’s discussion focuses only on the challenge of meeting rising food demand because of factors such as rising meat consumption in China and long-term underinvestment in agricultural research. Droughts in Russia and floods in Australia over the past year may be early harbingers of climate change. But if it is hard to meet rising food demands, it must be harder to meet demands for both food and biofuels.

… some studies evaluated the effect of biofuels on retail food prices in the United States rather than on wholesale crop prices worldwide. Not surprisingly, they found little impact. The price of corn in your corn flakes and other retail products is so small that even a tripling of crop prices has little effect at U.S. grocery stores. But the world’s poor do not eat processed, packaged corn flakes; they spend more than half of their incomes on staples such as corn meal.

Several reports tried to segregate the precise role of biofuels from weather and other factors. That’s not possible because the causes multiply each other. Just as a political tremor in the Middle East makes oil prices jump in tight markets, so drought in Russia sends wheat futures soaring once biofuels have stressed grain markets. In 2008 and again recently, some governments have responded by banning grain exports to keep domestic prices down. This has the effect of forcing prices higher for everyone else. You can blame national self-interest and the inevitable vagaries of weather, but the key is to avoid tight markets in the first place.

A broad misunderstanding has also arisen from economic models predicting price increases from biofuels that are still far lower than those of the past decade. In fact, these models do not estimate biofuel effects on prices today but those in a future market “equilibrium,” which will exist only after farmers have ample time to increase production to match demand. Today, the market is out of equilibrium. Biofuels have grown rapidly, from consuming 2 percent of world grain and virtually no vegetable oil in 2004 to more than 6.5 percent of grain and 8 percent of vegetable oil last year. Governments worldwide seek to triple production of biofuels by 2020, and that implies more moderately high prices after good growing years and soaring prices after bad ones.

The good news is that relief is possible. The same economic studies imply that food prices should come down if we can just limit biofuel growth. Corn ethanol is nearing Congress’s requirement for 15 billion gallons a year, and lawmakers need to hold it there. Similarly, Europe must rethink its mandates. For “advanced biofuels” required by Congress, the Obama administration needs to focus on fuel sources that do not compete with food, such as garbage and crop residues, and not grasses grown on good cropland. Otherwise, the sequel to the food crisis is likely to turn into a series.

Hear!  Hear!

As an aside, conservatives like to claim that it is environmentalists who gave us our current biofuels policy, but in fact I never have met an environmentalist who thought we should mandate anywhere near the current amount of corn ethanol.

The only reason environmentalists and clean energy advocates even tolerated energy deals with corn ethanol mandates is the hope that jumpstarting the infrastructure for corn ethanol would pave the way for next-generation cellulosic ethanol.  That turned out to be a mistake (see “Are biofuels a core climate solution?“).

We have gone far beyond what is tenable.  Yes, peak oil (and the energy-intensive nature of food production) means that oil prices will rise in tandem with food prices, thus increasing the profitability of biofuels.  And yes, we are a rich country, the  breadbasket of the world, politically far more impervious to higher food prices than higher oil prices.

But as population grows, developing countries’ diets change, and the extreme weather of the last year increasingly becomes the norm in a globally warmed world,  food insecurity will grow and our biofuels policy will, inevitably, collapse.  It must.

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28 Responses to The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?

  1. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It has been known for years that bio-fuels are a total disaster, as they divert food from human consumption, increase the rate pf destruction of tropical forests, and, if I’m not mistaken, increase the amount of ozone produced in combustion, a problem yet to percolate into the MSM. But the powers that be continue on regardless, indeed they redouble their efforts. I’m afraid that I cannot believe that mere greed and stupidity are at work here. For a start volatile commodities markets are lucrative sites for speculation by the hyper-rich through their hedge funds, wealth funds and other utterly amoral and inhuman mechanisms that they use to drive their wealth higher and higher. And, most sinister of all, it has long been common knowledge that the global elites have given some thought, and no doubt much more in private, to radically reducing the global over-supply of ‘useless eaters’ by crude Malthusian methods.

  2. Wit's End says:

    Since almost nobody has done any research to determine the effects of biofuel emissions on essential facets of existence, and compared them to burning fossil fuels, they just should NOT be utilized.

    It’s quite possible – and there is a tiny bit of evidence, that probably – the air pollution from burning biofuels is EVEN MORE TOXIC, causing escalated adverse health effects for humans (and no doubt animals) like cancer and heart attacks (check out the latest! http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)62296-9/fulltext)…and worse impacts on crop yields and quality.

    The big question is, why isn’t anybody doing comparative studies – and the rather nasty answer to that is, there is no funding for it…which begs the question, why is there no funding for it…and that has a simple answer:

    Nobody wants to know. It would require too much sacrifice on the part of consumers, and too much profit loss on the part of the corporations that control just about everything now.

    If anybody could provide a link to research indicating that the emissions from biofuels are safer for the environment than those pernicious pollutants from gas and coal, I would appreciate it!

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Ethanol fuel is of course insane on every level. GHG emissions are worse than gasoline, and that figure of 15% of global corn production for this purpose is just unconscionable.

    The reason is obvious and straightforward. Electricity for cars might be generated by clean home or locally based power. Greed crazed corporations- and agribusiness firms who want high commodity prices maintained- covet this market.

    They didn’t bother to ask the people or, as witsend pointed out, do the science.

  4. Leif says:

    Aside from all the above mentioned adverse effects of bio-fuels, Lester Brown makes this point in his book “Plan B, 4.0″ The amount of corn needed to fill the tank of an SUV just once will feed a third world person for a year!

  5. Solar Jim says:

    The photosynthetic energy efficiency of a corn crop is less than one percent, including the plant itself. Then, taking the kernels for processing with energy and feeding the resulting liquid into a 20% nominal ICE (internal caboom engine) gives us just about zero overall energy efficiency. Or has that corrupt plutocratic cesspool called Congress just invented negative efficiency? Certainly, the results are negative.

    It seems no matter how hard western corporatism tries to alleviate the curse of transport based on individual internal combustion vehicles, we are still driving ourselves and the planet on the road to ruin in oh so many ways (and everybody knows it).

  6. My articles pointing out the many problems of biofuels often appear on denier blogs with plenty of outrage about all the power ‘the greens/environuts’ and Al Gore have over congress to get those juicy ethanol subsidies. The fact that agri-business/energy companies profit most from all this rarely comes up.

  7. Sou says:

    I’m assuming people are growing corn for ethanol because it gives a better return than corn for feed or food, presumably by taxpayer subsidy. I’d expect that when the price of corn for feed and/or food rises above that paid for ethanol the situation will change. (It could be that contract crops will distort market signals for a while, but not forever.) The market for ethanol will hopefully disappear completely once there are no more petrol engines.

    Meanwhile, I agree with the above post. Ethanol subsidies are a taxpayer-funded handout that has a negative impact on social and environmental well-being.

    We humans do all sorts of odd things. Oil burnt in cars means other products made from fossil fuels are more expensive and won’t be available at all in the future when even recycled products run out. (We also chop down trees and use oil to package orange juice, instead of using the original orange peel packaging.)

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Could we have a campaign with Clinton and other progressives, promoting alternative energy, hybrids and electric vehicles and BECCS solutions?

    For example these images come up when you search google for Biochar ( Bill Clinton with holding real charcoal would be awesome… )

    In general my impression is that images with prominent people and clean tech are not so common (or maybe im wrong).

    ps. Will post this idea next open weekend thread …

  9. Leif says:

    Playing with the numbers: 15 billion gallons of ethanol per year mandated by congress. Divided by 20 gallons average tank size? of an SUV = 750 million fill ups. According to Lester Brown’s numbers, that is 750 million person years of food each year burned up. Way to go Capitalists.

  10. Ziyu says:

    It’s best not to make a blanket statement about biofuels here. There are different types of biofuels. The most common one in the US is corn ethanol. Taking into account emissions per unit of energy and the energy needed to create a fuel source, corn ethanol is only 13% cleaner than oil. Then there’s sugar cane ethanol. It’s more energy efficient and less energy intensive than corn ethanol. It’s not as good as second generation fuels though. Second generation fuels like switchgrass biofuel absorb a large portion of its emissions from combustion as the plant grows. The best ones, third generation fuels like algae, absorb nearly all of their emissions and don’t require farmland to grow. So when we say biofuels, let’s be sure we’re not confusing it with corn ethanol since there are so many more types of biofuels. On balance, a 13% emissions reduction probably isn’t worth global food instability. We should also consider chemical alternative fuels. There’s a new fuel made using solar energy and cerium that absorbs CO2 in the process.

  11. Prokaryotes says:

    Issues relating to biofuels

    There are various social, economic, environmental and technical issues with biofuel production and use, which have been discussed in the popular media and scientific journals. These include: the effect of moderating oil prices, the “food vs fuel” debate, poverty reduction potential, carbon emissions levels, sustainable biofuel production, deforestation and soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, impact on water resources, as well as energy balance and efficiency.

    Burning biodiesel also emits aldehydes and other potentially hazardous aromatic compounds which are not regulated in emissions laws.[21]
    Many aldehydes are toxic to living cells. Formaldehyde irreversibly cross-links protein amino acids, which produces the hard flesh of embalmed bodies. At high concentrations in an enclosed space, formaldehyde can be a significant respiratory irritant causing nose bleeds, respiratory distress, lung disease, and persistent headaches.[22] Acetaldehyde, which is produced in the body by alcohol drinkers and found in the mouths of smokers and those with poor oral hygiene, is carcinogenic and mutagenic.[23]
    The European Union has banned products that contain Formaldehyde, due to its documented carcinogenic characteristics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled Formaldehyde as a probable cause of cancer in humans.
    Brazil burns significant amounts of ethanol biofuel. Gas chromatograph studies were performed of ambient air in São Paulo Brazil, and compared to Osaka Japan, which does not burn ethanol fuel. Atmospheric Formaldehyde was 160% higher in Brazil, and Acetaldehyde was 260% higher.

  12. William P says:

    Thanks to our news media whose number one priority is to protect and continue profits of big corporations, severe food shortage in the US will be such an extreme shock to the American public their reaction is hard to predict.

    No one really knows the timetable of global warming and its certain devastating impacts on human society. For example, any event that causes a pause in the process of putting solar dimming particles into the atmosphere could precipitate sudden and perhaps large increases in global temperatures.

    The 9-11 catastrophe caused such a sudden jump in temperatures worldwide due to only the decline in air travel because of grounded fleets after the event.

    Some unforeseen event could cause even more wide spread and sudden decline in production the particulate matter that is holding temperatures down every day by preventing a portion of sunlight from reaching earth.

    Of course, societies will be shocked, blindsided and left with no plans on how to react – mainly thanks to the media’s cooperation with big oil, big coal and other corporations to keep a tight lid on the real meaning of escalating global warming.

  13. Richard Brenne says:

    Leif (#4, #9) – Dick Cheney, W. Bush and many others in his administration passed around an internal modest proposal memo where they solved all these problems by simply using the bodies of third world people as fuel. Kind of a green Soylent Green fuel that they also found delightful because it reduced engine pinging by up to several per cent.

  14. Leif says:

    Interesting aside Richard, @12. On a different but similar note can we make biochar out of people instead of cremation which uses fossil fuel and makes CO2? We could maybe even pay folks to “Biochar” their dead instead of charging them for essentially the same outcome.

  15. Prokaryotes says:

    William P said “Thanks to our news media whose number one priority is to protect and continue profits of big corporations, severe food shortage in the US will be such an extreme shock to the American public their reaction is hard to predict.”

    The only motivation might be related to bring down population numbers. But climate change is destined to bring down the numbers anyway, threatening the survival of the species – another genetic bottleneck.
    Further even if we remove all humans from earth the temperature would still rise. So we are either doomed with going dow with a whimper (current approach) or fight. Humans could eventually influence tipping points and help nature sustain carbon sinks and create new sources.

    For the conservative there is not much potential in the future, because their market will collapse, hence their income. And basically money, gold or shareholder value in the world we aim for, will be rendered absolutely worthless. Again, sitting it out inside an ark will also fail, because of the timescale and magnitude of change. We can only try to suck the heat trapping gases from fossil combustion back into the earth with technologies such as biochar for sequestering carbon.

  16. Owen says:

    The majority of the world’s corn supply is fed to cattle, pigs, and chickens.

    It’s an inefficient way of providing nutrition and results in excess pollution and health problems.


  17. Leif says:

    As I recall it takes ~ 13 pounds of protein to make a pound of beef protein, ~ 5 pound to make a pound of pork protein, and 3 pounds to make a pound of poultry protein.

  18. Leland Palmer says:

    Yes, we feed enough grain to livestock- in the U.S. alone- to feed something like 1.4 billion people.

    This makes fears of famine a little overblown.

    The available option of eating lower on the food chain, which would happen automatically if meat prices rise, pretty much guarantees that we won’t starve.

    Regarding biofuels, it depends on how we go about it. Cellulosic ethanol, if we can reduce it to practice, should have a net energy yield of roughly ten times.

    So, just adding cellulosic ethanol plants onto the corn ethanol plants could raise the overall net energy to something like five times- well worth doing.

    The advantage of biofuels, at least those that produce net energy, is that they are carbon neutral, or can be managed to be nearly so.

    So, I don’t want to give up on ethanol yet. For one thing, it can displace gasoline, and do so in a practical manner. So, it’s a transition fuel, for a transportation system which desperately needs change.

    I want the corn ethanol plants to also convert the corn stover into ethanol, and so transition from corn ethanol to cellulosic ethanol.

  19. BBHY says:

    It is not just that it uses up grain, or uses up productive farmland, corn to ethanol also uses enormous amounts of precious fresh water. I think that is the ultimate problem with corn ethanol.

    Remember that climate change is going to mean very serious droughts right smack in the middle of the major grain producing areas of the country. When that happens we won’t have enough fresh water to be able to produce enough food even without ethanol production. Do we really want to make our transportation dependent on that same limited water supply? That would be unwise in the extreme.

  20. Anne van der Bom says:

    So that will be Peak Oil and at the same time Peak Corn then?

  21. Colorado Bob says:

    Flood and severe weather warnings have been issued for far north Queensland, with torrential rain affecting cyclone-damaged communities.

    More than 200 millimetres of rain has fallen since yesterday morning in the Daintree and Cairns.

    Cyclone-affected areas, including Tully, have had more than 100 millimetres.


  22. Wit's End says:

    Prok #11, thanks for that link!!

  23. Marlowe Johnson says:

    For those of you that are interested in biofuel GHG assessments, you may find CARBs recent release interesting where several new pathways are being proposed by various proponents (including POET):


    Searchinger has done some pioneering work in this area (as has Fargione et al), but I think it’s important to remember that this is an area of science where there are legitimate disagreements about the benefits and second order impacts (e.g. IDLUC) of first generation biofuels.

    Ethanol from coal-fired plants isn’t about GHGs, it’s about ag policy and energy security. However, it’s not at all clear that ethanol from NG-plants can’t be part of the mitigation toolkit (see the link above).

    If people are truly concerned with corn and food prices then the discussion should really shift (or at least include) meat. After all, that’s where all the corn and soy is going.

    In a fossil fuel constrained world, food prices are bound to rise, regardless of our biofuel policies (e.g. fertilizer costs). IMO, the discussion on biofuels needs to move beyond a simplistic ‘food vs. fuel’ framing to a more complicated, but ultimately more useful, discussion about promoting food security and a livable climate (i.e. biochar).

  24. ToddInNorway says:

    About 90% of corn not used for bioethanol is used as animal feed. It does not feed humans directly. Think about it, just what kind of meal would consist of more than a side dish of corn. And all that corn-based sweetener in soda water, what is that good for? If someone here can tell me that the land currently used to grow corn would be viable to grow more “human food” please present your case. More wheat? More oats? Are you sure? Or perhaps more grassland for grass-fead cattle instead of corn? Would the 3rd world be eating more beef if we converted all current corn-growing land to grassland for cattle? I think not. Having said this, I am convinced that a growing fleet of electric cars and super-efficient plug-in hybrids will make the whole bioethanol debate disappear pronto.

  25. Frank Zaski says:

    More Background

    “Global food prices are rising to dangerous levels and threaten tens of millions of poor people,” World Bank chief Robert Zoellick announced yesterday. “It’s poor people who are now facing incredible pressure to feed themselves and their families.”


    Kraft, Sara Lee Corp. and General Mills Inc. have raised prices on many products to cope with the rising costs of wheat, corn and sugar. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-10/kraft-declines-after-lowering-full-year-forecast-on-rising-commodity-costs.html

    USDA has just released a surprisingly frank report documenting that the current U.S. corn stocks are shockingly low, in fact the lowest in 15 years. http://www.grist.org/article/2011-02-11-usda-announces-corn-supply-at-15-year-low-thanks-to-ethanol

    The best second-half for commodities in a generation is pushing U.S. farm incomes and agricultural land prices toward record highs. Farmers are already running flat out. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-15/farm-economy-heading-for-record-u-s-profits-pushes-cropland-values-up-10-.html

    I personally have experienced that grass fertilizer and water softener potassium chloride prices have gone up considerably along with increasing ethanol requirements.

  26. sailrick says:

    @Prokaryotes 11

    You mention the European Union banning formaldahyde and the EPA considering it a carcinogen.

    But the Koch brothers are busy funding anti science denial on this topic as well as global warming etc. Since they are not only in the oil business, but own a big chunk of Georgia Pacific, I wonder why?

  27. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Frank Zaski : (and all)
    “I personally have experienced that grass fertilizer and water softener potassium chloride prices have gone up considerably along with increasing ethanol requirements.”

    If you are wasting resources on a lawn, please reconsider. Find out about relatively drought tolerant ground covers and wildflowers native to your area.

    Colorado Bob: I hope you are still cataloging all the floods and so forth.

  28. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Colorado Bob, have you picked up heavy rains in South Africa?