Corn: Fuel or Food?

The local paper has yet another article pondering the wisdom of using corn and similar foodstuffs as a fuel source. Today’s article cites research from two University of Minnesota economists who state once again that we will have an ethical as well as an economic choice to make in the coming decades. We keep on striving to find new ways to keep the current game going as long as possible without taking a step back and wondering if that’s really the smartest thing to do.   If we manage to keep the motoring society going for another twenty years, what does that gain us? Another generation of an expanding global population, more environmental devastation, and what else?  To my mind, kicking the problems down the road via biofuels or some other techno-fix is just going to make the fallout from the eventual unwinding of the system that much worse, since there will be more people and less resources to fall back on.

It’s interesting to read in the article that the pro-ethanol spokepeople are doing their best to deny any relationship between increased ethanol production and food shortages around the world, yet American animal farming industry groups are already sounding the alarm about rising feed prices having a detrimental effect on conumer prices for many animal products. It also cites the problems in Mexico with rising prices for corn tortillas, which is prompting the goverment to look at fixing prices to avoid social unrest.   So, who’s full of crap, and who isn’t?

The chart attached to the story gives a sobering outlook for future food prices.  They estimate corn prices to be 41% higher than today’s price by 2020 (not accounting for inflation, of course, so it will likely be higher than that).  Americans have gotten used to spending a small portion of their pay on food.   If food prices suddenly doubled or tripled, it would be interesting to see how fast people would drop their internet, cable or wireless services.

Cellusloic ethanol production is often touted as a cost-effective alternative to corn production, yet it has it’s own problems.  There are no easy solutions the problems we are facing with regards to our energy use that don’t address conservation as a major component.   That’s a not a pro-business outlook, I know, so we’ll continue to keep firing off magic bullet after magic bullet until we run out of ammo.

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6 Responses to Corn: Fuel or Food?

  1. Burdockboy says:

    I agree that we often put too much faith in technology solving our problems. It seems as though government leaders and the media are constantly looking for the holy grail of solutions to promote (one week hydrogen, then biodiesel, hen ethanol, etc), all while the auto industry fails to reduce its gas guzzlers and many of the houses being built are larger with few efficiencies. It takes an effort from all sides.

    As far as corn goes, perhaps the industry is afraid that subsidies will begin to disappeare from so much global pressure. The actual corn farmers now aren’t really turning a profit, only the manufactures of corn products like ADM and Cargill or the seed producers and chemical industries like Monsanto are cashing in. It is in their best interests to keep corn king. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  2. The most disturbing thing to me is that IF you can get an ethanol proponet to admit there might be some constriction of food supply they dismiss it as something that will happen somewhere else, as if those people matter less than allowing Americans to drive and consume as much as they want.

    Cellusloic ethanol disturbs me because all that valuable organic matter will be used to make fuel for devices that are not essential to life on Earth, rather than being composted into fields to produce food, which is essential to life.

  3. Bart says:

    The pinch is being felt in corners of the world we don’t think about too often. Out of sight, out of mind, right? How often do you hear about food or fuel crises in the third world in the US media?

    We appear to be more concerned with figuring out new and interesting ways to rape the earth to keep our current way of life going rather than trying to keep our life-support system healthy. We will pay a price for that short-term thinking sooner or later.

  4. GeologyJoe says:

    Its not just the food shortage. Producing a gallon of ethanol uses just as much ‘regular’ fuel. You need diesel to run the farm equipment, you need gasoline and diesel to transport the final product…Hell you even need fuel to refine the corn to ethanol. Its getting us NOWHERE. Shit! It even makes the carcinogenic compounds in the final product (benzene, toluene etc.) more readily soluble in groundwater, which makes them able to travel further after a spill.

  5. Bart says:

    Good points, Joe, and that doesn’t even cover the natural gas used to create the fertilizer and pesticides necessary to grow the corn in the biologically dead dirt patches that pass for cornfields these days.

    I’ve railed against ethanol for a while now. It’s a boondoggle for farmers and nothing else. Most credible scientific reports show that it’s a net energy loser, yet we still think it’s the latest miracle cure to our ‘oil problem.’

  6. […] my gas tank with a biofuel blend. And I was thinking about how there are serious problems with corn as a fuel. And I told myself, “yeah, but it’s clearly better than oil and blood, which is what […]

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