Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Death-A-Nol: The real story of corn ethanol.

I know I haven’t blogged in a while, but I have just been so busy writing papers for all of my classes.  A couple of weeks and it will all be over!!!  In one of my classes, we had a debate on the impacts of ethanol on the U.S. livestock industry.  Being an aficionado for international agricultural economics, this debate really allowed me to stretch out and run a bit in class, and I was able to vent some serious problems I have with ethanol being our primary alternative fuel in the U.S.
The current situation is such that in a supposed effort to reduce auto-based emissions, gasoline companies are being required to add up to 10% ethanol, by volume, to the fuel they sell at the pump (we’ve all seen the sign on the gas pump).  On the surface, someone who is versed in elementary chemistry can see that the products of gasoline combustion are carbon dioxide, methane, and a whole laundry list of greenhouse gasses.  Bad news for the ozone.  Ethanol, on the other hand, when burned produces water and carbon dioxide (in lower quantities than from gasoline) with no other greenhouse gasses.  Sounds pretty good, right?  Furthermore, ethanol (E-85) can cost upwards of a dollar less than regular gasoline fuel. (This gives a false impression that it’s cheaper.  It really isn’t when you consider the thermodynamics of ethanol vs. gasoline)

So, what’s my beef with ethanol?  It comes down to how our actions affect others, especially in the international community.  Unfortunately, life is such that you have to rob Peter to be able to pay Paul; a catch-22 if you will.  The agriculture and energy sectors are no exception to this rule, in that what is good for one industry or group of people may hurt others.
Please see the satire, folks.

In the year 2000, the United States used around 94 million tons of its total corn harvest for the production of ethanol.  By 2010, the U.S. was using 126 million tons.  That’s a whopping 32% of the corn grown and harvested in the U.S.!  This huge increase has been, in part, because of generous government spending in the form of subsidizing ethanol corn production averaging out to be about $1.90/gallon of ethanol produced.  Furthermore, the U.S. government has imposed a tariff (remember the Boston Tea Party?) of $0.54/gallon on imported ethanol.  All this so we can produce our own fuel independently of other nations.  These subsidies have provided huge incentives for growers to convert their production to ethanol corn, which comes at the cost of less land being left to grow other food crops.  The effect: a scarcity of non-ethanol-corn crops and subsequent inflation of non-ethanol corn and other food prices.  

Food price increase is not only due to scarcity.  As corn is used more and more for alternative fuel production, its price will become increasingly tied to oil prices.  Therefore, as oil prices skyrocket, as we have seen in recent years, so will the price of corn and, subsequently, so will the price of food.
Speaking specifically about non-ethanol corn, what do we feed cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens? You guessed it: corn.  As the price of corn rises, so will the prices of meat, bread, and virtually all food products that contain any type of grain, corn or otherwise.  So when you see that the new Wendy’s dollar menu is now a dollar-sixty menu, you can thank the ethanol in your gas tank.

Internationally, the effects of excessive ethanol production can be readily observed.  The U.S. is the World’s largest exporter of corn.  We also used to have huge reserves of grain in the U.S. for use in times of crisis and famine.  For example, in the 1960’s, Lyndon B. Johnston send a shipment of 1/5 of the nation’s wheat harvest to India to (successfully) help stave off famine.  Since a growing portion of our nation’s corn harvest is going towards ethanol, these reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate, and are not being replenished.  We have, perhaps, reached a time when the U.S. can no longer offer this scale of food-aid to the world.  
As the number of mouths at the ‘global dinner table’(taken from Foreign Policy magazine) increases by about 219,000 a day, the amount of grain available to these people, most of whom are considered to be among the extremely poor, is decreased.  This brings up the issue of food shortages as a result of alternative fuels.   Unfortunately, most of the World’s extremely poor are purchasers of food rather than producers.  That means that there will be less food for them to buy and it will be at a much higher price.

In the U.S. we spend less than 10% of our household income on food, whereas people in the developing world can spend as much as 70%.  So a doubling in food prices, for us, means a $2.00 loaf of bread now costs $2.10.  More of an annoyance than a crisis, really.  However for the poor and extremely poor, that price doubling can be the difference between eating and not eating that day.  The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that the expansion of ethanol production will result in a 4%-8% reduction in daily caloric intake of families in Africa.  For a person that is daily on the brink of starvation, this decrease can mean death.

If the U.S. continues to devote its energy solely towards corn ethanol production, rather than invest more in non-food alternatives, then we will not only see a marked increase in our own food prices, but we will also see an increase in famine, starvation, and food-based wars and we will have to stand idly by and watch people die because we lack the resources to help them.

So, how can you help?
  • Vote for people that share your values about alternative fuels (This is huge)
  •  Support research for alternatives to corn ethanol like:
    • Switchgrass, algae, sugar cane
  •  Do what I do and find a gas station that still offers ethanol-free gas. These aren’t always easy to find, but if you agree with me, you’ll feel better about buying gas there.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this problem.  So, it is important we educate ourselves now so when opportunities for change arise, we can recognize them and take advantage.