“Agriculture for Energy is an Extremely Stupid Thing”

First there were news stories about skyrocketing tortilla prices in Mexico, thanks in part to the increased use of corn for making ethanol.  Now the same thing is happening with pasta prices in Italy.   Wheat prices have been rising along with corn and other staple crops, and Italians are protesting the average 20% increase in pasta prices this year.

As the article note, food prices are rising in many parts of the world due to a number of reasons including poor harvests, droughts, and increased production of biofuels.  The title of this post comes from Barilla Pasta chariman Guido Barilla:

“Wheat makes up 60% of the price,” he says, pointing to a box of penne on a table. What irks him is not so much the public fuss in Italy, which he dismisses with a shrug, but one of the reasons prices are rising in the first place: the growing use of agricultural crops to make ethanol and other alternative fuels. “Agriculture for energy is an extremely stupid thing,” Barilla says. “It’s very inefficient.”


 In related news, one of our local TV stations ran an interesting story on the late news last week talking objectively about ethanol.   By ‘objective’ I mean a story that’s not 100% positive about making fuel out of corn.  Considering Minnesota is one of the hotbeds of ethanol use and production, this is a somewhat controversial step the local news took.   As part of their ongoing series of stories on energy and biofuels, the station put a poll up asking respondents their views on ethanol.   This poll was noticed by the local branch of the American Lung Association, who have become big advocates of E85 in the last few years as part of their clean-air initiatives.  The ALA sent around email asking E85 supporters to vote on the poll, and somehow this made it to the US Department of Energy, who sent it around their offices (albeit too late to influence the poll).  Well, the DOE’s attempt to influence the poll has made both local and national news.   I doubt anything other than mild embarrassment will come from this, but it’s interesting to note anyway.

I do find it interesting that the ALA has latched onto E85 as the wonder fuel of choice for cleaner air.  It’s well and good that they advocate for cleaning up the air we all breathe, but their support of E85 is somewhat off base in my opinion.   Promoting ethanol as renewable fuel misses the point (that the original ethanol news story makes) that the inputs of energy (mostly fossil fuels), fertilizer and water are such that while ethanol can be thought of as kinda-renewable, it sure isn’t sustainable for any long period of time… increasing production of ethanol will drop our usage of petroleum a small amount while potentially driving up food costs and doing more damage to our croplands and the environment.    It’s the unwillingness or inability of advocacy groups like the ALA to see all sides of an issue that drives me me crazy.

 If you’re going to convert grain into alcohol, I prefer to make the kind that matches up well with hamburgers or bratwurst… but that’s just me.


4 Responses to “Agriculture for Energy is an Extremely Stupid Thing”

  1. aaron swan says:

    I don’t think it’s at all fair to call agri-energy “extremely stupid”. The Dakota Farmer magazine had a recent story on farmers running machinery on 100% biodiesel made from soy bean oil. This doesn’t seem a great deal different from the old method of raising grain to feed draft animals in the pre-petro days.

  2. Bart says:

    You’re right… it’s probably not fair, but it makes for a great title… 🙂

    Biofuels have their uses and will fill certain niches in the energy picture. Ethanol has potential, but I’m more interested in potential of sugar cane, switchgrass or some other source material than a food staple like corn.

    The idea that corn-based ethanol will replace more than a small fraction of the USA’s current gasoline usage is just plain silly. The only reason it’s even seen as a possiblity is due corn’s being subsidized by the US government, IMO.

  3. Jim says:

    One employee of ALA-MN used to spend an inordinate amount of time leaving pro-E85 comments on my old blog, whenever I’d get to discussing the ethanol issue. When I tried to pin him down on why he was such a shill for ethanol, he indicated that the ALA was focused on reducing particulate matter in the air, and less concerned about some of the other problems ethanol creates. His comments, however, read like scripts for TV commercials, and were often misleading (downplaying or denying problems). I did see his comments popping up on other blogs, too (this one?), and I often wondered if seeding comment threads with propaganda was part of his job description, or if it was more of an off-hour hobby.

  4. Bart says:

    I experienced the same thing… as I recall, the commenter in question held a position like ‘media outreach coordinator, ‘communications director’ or similar… in other words he was posting as a paid shill. I think you’re right that he more or less had a series of pre-written comments he’d throw out there, and would not bother to debate any of the issues surrounding biofuels.

    I wonder… if someone found a way to make biofuels out of tobacco, would the ALA promote increased production of it? 🙂

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