More Corn is Used For Ethanol in U.S. Than For Food or Feed — The Top Five Reasons We Should Stop This Madness

by Cole Mellino

Today, more corn is grown in America for ethanol than for food or for livestock feed. For every 10 ears of corn grown in the U.S., two are consumed by humans, and the other eight are used for feed and fuel. In the last year, the scales have tipped so that ethanol represents the largest share of corn use — 5 billion bushels of corn went to animal feed and residual demand while “the nation used more than 5.05 billion bushels of corn to fill its gas tanks.”

That is sure to rile all those who see corn ethanol as an over-subsidized boondoggle for the climate, a group that includes Climate Progress (see “The Fuel on the Hill” and “Let them eat biofuels!“)

Corn ethanol was always touted as a “stepping stone” to advanced fuels. That is still true in theory. But with the government supporting traditional ethanol for so long, it’s time to refocus our efforts non-food based fuels. Here are the top five reasons why the U.S. should shift incentives away from traditional corn ethanol:

  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. As the Poor people do not have that luxury. As the UN Reported earlier this month, 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.

Much has been written about the environmental and social consequences of food-based fuels. But with the U.S. now using more corn for ethanol that for animal feed or food for humans, that alarm is likely to increase.

— Cole Mellino is an intern on the energy team at the Center for American Progress

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