January 28, 2007

Food vs. Fuel

There isn't enough corn to produce ethanol in the quantities Bush suggests it should be produced in during the state of the union address, so the administration is looking at reducing tariffs on foreign ethanol to boost its import. If demand for ethanol increases significantly, the US may trade part of it's reliance on foreign oil for a reliance on foreign corn, possibly becoming a net importer of corn. Bush also touted cellulosic ethanol as an alternative to corn-based ethanol, but there isn't even one US plant open to produce it, making it a practical non-issue in the short term.

Competition for corn between pork and beef producers who want it for feed and ethanol producers who want it for fuel is already tightening supplies and has doubled prices just over the last year. The above linked article on the impact on cattle producers spotlights this concise overview:

... If there's a silver lining for cattle raisers, it's the fact that ethanol plants produce huge amounts of a high protein byproduct called distiller's grain that steers love, said Kment of DTN, a commodity news service.

But even in Hereford, home to sprawling feedlots and where two large ethanol plants are being built, the rich cattle feed won't solve all of the problems created by corn prices, said Bob Josserand, mayor of the Panhandle town and owner of the 50,000-head-capacity Hereford Feedyard.

One ethanol plant announced that it will transform manure produced by the area's feedlots and large dairies into energy to run the operation then supply the same livestock with distiller's grain.

"Initially, we thought, 'Wow, it'll take care of the environmental impact of manure and we'd have wet distiller's grain right next door,'" Josserand said.

"Both are significant pluses. I spend more than $150,000 to haul off manure each year. And distiller's grain is about 25 percent cheaper than flaked corn feed. But you can only use it for a third of the ration. So that means just an 8 percent savings at current prices."

In the meantime, "since we have no wet distiller's grain to use, feed yards are getting clobbered pretty bad. There's nothing to offset the corn prices."

Even though his town will benefit from the ethanol plants, Josserand said he's worried that diverting so much corn to energy production might drastically raise consumer prices for beef, pork and chicken. ...

And that's a significant issue with ethanol as it's now produced: it's the equivalent of burning food. In terms of land use, expanding corn production means intensive, high-input farming that's burning topsoil at home and biodiversity abroad. Corn, as noted at the link, is one of the most energy-intensive crops to produce and price incentives have decreased sustainable land management practices such as corn-soy rotations. In the United States, farmers expect to plant an additional 10.2 million acres in corn in 2007 over the previous year's totals, while planting less soy. In tropical countries, the expansion of biofuel production means the loss of native grasslands and diverse rainforest to monocropped expanses of soy, sugar and oil palm.

There's very likely an important place for biofuels in the transition to a sustainable energy future, but with the external costs of current practices, it's not the panacea some make it out to be.

Natasha is currently an intern with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, an organization dedicated to outreach and education in sustainable agriculture and food systems issues. The opinions expressed in this post are her own and are not representations on behalf of MFAI.

Posted by natasha at January 28, 2007 11:44 AM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

And of course, there is that underlying problem of higher food prices in the global market. China is already importing soybeans and grain which leaves much less available for places like Southern Africa. Clearly we have a coming crisis about what types of agriculture we should be promoting to protect the soil, clean fresh water and for optimum food production for the world to prevent massive starvation. Even the growing of corn for cattle and pigs is a bad thing (see Omnivore's Dilemna).

It seems to me that Bush's goal is to once more enrich the agriculture fat cats not solve real problems.

Posted by: Mary at January 28, 2007 01:10 PM

No, ethanol isn't a panacea, and I don't trust Bush to do it right--but I think it's a good idea to start shifting some of our infrastructure over to it. We desperately need an energy source that we can produce domestically, and agriculture *is* one of the great strengths of the U.S.

What are the alternatives? Solar's great, but in its present state it can't do much. Coal and hydroelectric both have severe environmental downsides, and coal's limited. Nuclear's pretty good, but no one wants a plant near them. (I don't know much about wind power, and its costs and ramifications.) Any solution is going to need to use a combination of all of these.

Posted by: Adam at January 28, 2007 04:19 PM

I'd like to point out that "high-input" means OIL. Fertilizer is made in large part from natural gas and oil, pesticides are made from oil (and corn requires huge amounts of both fertilizer and pesticides), not to mention the oil required to run equipment for planting, harvesting and processing. It'd be more 'natural' simply to put the oil straight into the tank - oh, wait, we do that already!

While I do think there's a place for ethanol - perhaps as a buffer commodity for overproduction of corn, or as part of a suite of real alternatives, the wholesale replacing of gasoline with ethanol is just a shell game.

Posted by: stefan at January 29, 2007 07:02 AM

stefan - Exactly. Corn requires more fossil hydrocarbon input than other grain crops by a long shot, including nitrogen fertilizer, much of which is produced by a high-consumption, high-temperature industrial reaction.

I don't know that ethanol shouldn't be involved in the suite of solutions we'll need going forward, but for this reason alone, we definitely can't just up our ethanol production and then call it a day.

Posted by: natasha at January 29, 2007 12:56 PM