The Corn Identity: The US Will Make Ethanol Out Of Enough Corn To Feed 412 Million People

The US corn crop, in the in the height of its vulnerable pollination phase, is already under siege from intense heat and devastating drought.  Experts are continuously revising predicted crop yield lower and lower. In fact, as of July 11th, this year’s corn crop is no longer projected to be history’s largest. At the same time, almost 1 billion people world wide are going hungry. However, plans remain in place to use about 40% of America’s corn crop, the world’s largest, for biofuel purposes.

The nearly 5 billion bushels of corn that will be cordoned off for to create ethanol could feed about 412 million people for an entire year. Instead, it will be turned into 13.5 billion gallons of corn ethanol. This is a problem because:

  1. Life cycle studies show that corn ethanol ranges from barely better than petroleum fuels to significantly worse, especially if you take into account land and water use issues, increased deforestation, and increased fertilizer use.
  2. Corn ethanol contributes to rises in food prices because of competition for arable land to grow food. With more corn for biofuels taking up that space, the price of grains and other agricultural products increases.
  3. For many in the developing world, rising prices mean they don’t eat. People in poor countries, especially in import-heavy sub-Saharan Africa, feel the impact of rising food prices far worse than in developed countries. This is because they spend so much more of their income on food….Poor people do not have that luxury. As the UN Reported (in October), 26 countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, are still at extreme risk of hunger, with biofuels playing a significant role in exacerbating the problem.
  4. Climate change mitigation from biofuels will be “very limited” before 2050. “We will not have any greenhouse gas savings for the next 20 years…because they are working with first generation crops,” according to Mahendra Shah, an advisor to Qatar’s food security program.
  5. By focusing our national investments on corn ethanol, we prevent other technologies, including other biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol and micro algae biodiesel, which are low greenhouse gas emitters, from competing with corn ethanol.

President Bill Clinton believes that an over emphasis on corn ethanol could lead to food riots. A point underscored by the fact corn futures are less than 15 cents from an all time high.

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.

There are other potential biofuel sources. Some are food by products, others aren’t even food at all. Its time that we realize the failings of corn ethanol, stop devoting so much of a valuable resources to this wasteful project, and feed the hungry.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center for American Progress.

22 Responses to The Corn Identity: The US Will Make Ethanol Out Of Enough Corn To Feed 412 Million People

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    We seem to have out-of-control climate change funding, having nothing to do with climate change, just the way the oil companies like it.

    The $7 billion in loan guarantees for another Vogtle nuclear power plant is also out-of-control climate change funding. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans appear to give a hoot about the climate change issue.

    Then there are massive “clean coal” payouts.

  2. M Tucker says:

    The fact that we are still perusing this completely insane project of corn to ethanol is proof that we are no where near being serious about addressing the climate change problem. A federally subsidized make work program that actually increases GHG and makes food prices higher for everyone.

  3. SecularAnimist says:

    The reality is that the vast majority of corn grown in the USA is used for livestock feed, to mass produce cheap, factory-farmed meat — with a resulting reduction in protein for human consumption of up to 90 percent. Which is AT LEAST as wasteful and destructive as using it for ethanol.

    As the National Corn Growers Association reports:

    “According to reports released by the USDA this month and data supplied by PRX, domestic and international livestock continues to be the No. 1 use for U.S. corn, totaling approximately 7.7 billion bushels per year. An estimated 1.5 billion bushels of corn, or 80 percent of projected U.S. corn exports, is used for feed overseas in the past year. Additionally, U.S. livestock consumption totals 6.2 billion bushels … While media attention has focused more on ethanol production recently, the livestock industry continues to purchase more corn than any other sector year after year …”

    Only a small number of vegan and animal rights activists have paid much attention, but the diversion of corn (as well as 98 PERCENT of the US soybean crop!) from providing food for the many, to providing livestock feed to mass-produce meat for the wealthy few, has been going on for years.

    Sure, the corn now being used for ethanol “could” feed 412 million people — but it wouldn’t. If it were not being used for ethanol, it would feed factory-farmed cattle and chickens who would be slaughtered to make unwholesome Big Macs and McNuggets for a far smaller number of people, and would help perpetuate the entirely preventable epidemics of obesity and degenerative disease that afflict developed countries, as well as those developing countries whose meat consumption is skyrocketing.

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    Decades from now, what will be the toughest thing about 2012 for people to understand? Corn ethanol policies and practices? Photos of parking lots full of SUVs? The (still!) rising worldwide use of coal? The infinite indifference of so many of us to sustainability issues, even as the impacts of our centuries long use of the atmosphere like an open sewer become so painfully obvious? How easily politicians and our votes were bought by the fossil fuel companies?

  5. John McCormick says:

    Do US environmental groups hold any responsibility for creation of the corn to ethanol industry? Just asking.

  6. SecularAnimist says:

    Max Frankel quoted Bill Clinton: “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 …”

    Let’s be very clear about what “developing countries’ diets change” means.

    It means that people in developing countries are eating MORE MEAT.

    It means that people in developing countries are adopting US-style, fossil-fueled, chemical-laden industrial factory “farming” of MEAT.

    It means that 1.5 billion bushels of this year’s US corn crop is exported for use as animal feed, to mass produce MEAT for the rapidly growing demand in the developing world.

    And it means that the populations of developing countries are beginning to experience the same epidemics of degenerative disease that heavy MEAT consumption has inflicted on the US population for decades.

    This is a much bigger problem than ethanol.

  7. Joan Savage says:

    Each year a die is cast when farmers choose which kind of corn to plant.

    Corn grown for ethanol is not really edible. It’s designed for rapid conversion to maximum ethanol. We don’t have the option (at least not an honorable option) to pack up ethanol corn and ship it off to somewhere that has famine.

    As it is, the farmers are now stuck playing with the Climate Change Dice, hoping for more favorable weather conditions. It’s pretty clear the US can’t guarantee being Breadbasket to the World, even if farmers exclusively planted food and feed corn.

  8. Nasdram says:

    High prices of corn can be a good thing for the developing world. Through subsidies on corn from the US and Europe, it has become unprofitable for local farmers in Mexico to plant crops as they can get the same corn cheaper in the supermarket than they could produce it. Rising prices on the world market would mean it becomes profitable for developing nations farmers to plant crops again and helps those nations feed themself. This of course is only the case if higher demand is the cause of the rise in food prices and not rise in fuel and fertilizer cost.
    So its by far not as one sided as its made out in this article.

    Also, its very easy to use the waste from the ethanol production as feed for livestock. By utilizing this option, the footprint of the industry is shrinking as you have to consider that the corn most likely would be used anyway for cattle feed.

    Would it be better if ethanol production would be cellulose based? Of course, i doubt anyone is arguing differently. But Corn and sugar ethanol is playing a role in helping the industry gain a foothold. There are companies working hard on the cellulose ethanol but that sadly will take a bit more time.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Perhaps. But the important question is: what do environmental groups propose now?

    Where should our efforts go?
    Who are our potential allies?
    What is the fastest path to clean energy?

    Not easy questions. Reread Auden Schendler’s post below.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Lou, if you’ve put all your eggs in the baskets of individualism, private enterprise, money and the pursuit of happiness – whatever that is – what would you expect? ME

  11. fj says:

    This comes under the category of the “Clueless Rich”.

    The pattern seems to that human evolution and intelligence will accelerate to tackle accelerating climate change; maybe.

  12. PeterW says:

    SecularAnimist I think you’re missing a few people when you say “Only a small number of vegan and animal rights activists have paid much attention”. The local food movement has also been very against factory farming and have pointed out time and time again that cows should not be eating corn. They evolved to eat grasses.

    Perhaps you should read some of Joel Salatin’s books or Michael Pollan’s.

  13. SeaKat says:

    Also, over 80% of that corn is genetically modified corn, making it even less edible.

  14. We don’t have to change everything at once to reasonably survive. We just need to change ten percent of everything each year to halve its carbon and ecological footprint.

    If we do something like that every year, year on year -overall 5% reduction in total carbon and ecological footprint – then the odds shift to our favor in avoiding the crossing of too many tipping points.

    But real, substantive, quantified, and lasting change does have to start now.

  15. fj says:

    Can we make the public aware of net zero mobility solutions by calling them Cell Transit?

  16. PeterW says:

    SecularAnimist says: I agree with you that the industrial food system is a colossal waste of energy and resources but you also seem to be extrapolating that all meat production is bad. In fact herbivores are very useful to build soil. Building the topsoil is a very good way of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and allows the farmer to grow much more nutritious food.

    Also, the idea that meat has caused the “epidemics of degenerative disease” is very debatable. I believe the current science points the finger at sugars and other high glycemic index foods.

  17. Dave Bradley says:

    Corn grown for EtOH makes 3 things – EtOH from the sugar and starch, DDGS from the protein /nutrients/oils part of the corn, and CO2 from the fermentation of the starch that gets hydrolyzed to sugars.

    DDGS can also be incorporated into food for people. People generally need protein (DDGS has a protein content of 30 wt%). It also has all the nutrients, and also some additional proteinvia the yeast that are used to convert the sugars (glucose and fructose, alias the components of corn syrup) into EtOH.

    Quite frankly, the last thing America’s people and its feedlot animals need is another 70 MILLION tons of sugarin their diet. With cows, a lot of that will get converted into CO2 and methane in their guts. Yeah right, we need that too.

    The starch in corn has little useful nutritional value, and it IS a good thing to extract it and convert it to EtOH. We now make 1 million bbls/ray of EtOH, and this displaces about 1.5 to 2 million bbls/day of crap grade oil (like Tar Sands Sludge) or about 1.2 to 1.5 million bbls/day of ace quality crude that would get made into around 650,000 bbls/day of gasoline.

    As long as we drive cars and trucks and so many Americans live in the suburbs and in the country, we are going to be using a lot of liquid fuels. Not a lot of GOOD choices her, just ones that vary in degrees of badness. Converting starch into sugars into EtOH while presrving all the useful nutrition in corn kernels is so much less bad than importing oil, fracking for it or doing that enviro rape and pillage that is the Tar Sands of Alberta.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As far as the Right is concerned corn for ethanol means profits for business. If some ‘useless eaters’ somewhere in ‘Furnerland’ succumb, it becomes a class ‘win-win’ situation.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Don’t forget the corn going to make high fructose corn syrup, which is powering the obesity epidemic and opening great business opportunities for the medical-industrial complex, Big Pharma, the makers of bariatric equipment and the producers of jumbo-sized coffins. Another ‘Miracle of the Free Market’, methinks.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The indifference I’d say, the death-wish, the triumph of Thanatos, the greed that overpowered reason and compassion. The ‘people’ needing to understand will, very likely, be ‘not of this Earth’.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Another greed-induced disaster.

  22. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    There are alternatives to produce biofuel like Agave plants which are care-free growth.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert