Matt Wu: Food vs Fuel Feature Story
Environmental science professor of Emory University, Dr. Lance Gunderson, recalls when gasoline with ethanol was so popular it was like “industrial scale moonshine.”
10 years ago was an important time for the world. It was the warmest year in human history and President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. This policy forever changed the energy industry through the required mass addition of ethanol into gasoline.
At a rate of increase of nearly 2 billion gallons per year, more ethanol use seemed logical. In theory, it would stop this new climate phenomenon, global warming, by lowering carbon dioxide emissions.
Unfortunately, ethanol did not solve the problem. Global warming is still here today and world temperatures are still rising.
In the U.S., ethanol is primarily made from corn. As a fuel source, it has helped the situation, but not as much as promised. Since corn’s increased use in ethanol, another problem has also worsened: worldwide hunger. Justifying using corn, as a fuel source, then becomes a tougher issue.
While it is easy to play the humanitarian argument, the economics involved with rising oil prices play a key role in ethanol’s increased use. The dilemma then becomes less clear: should corn be used for food or for fuel?
As a fuel, corn-based ethanol has many benefits. One of which is decreased reliance on foreign-oil supply. By producing ethanol within the country instead of getting fuel overseas, it increases energy security and lessens transactions with foreign volatile countries. The Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, explains how fuel is a top vulnerability to the Navy and Marine Corps in terms of safety for the country’s soldiers.
In response to foreign oil dependency, Mabus states, “we give them a say in whether our ships sail, our aircraft fly, our ground vehicles operate.” This sense of strength and independency from other countries has also given rise to more jobs for ethanol production.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ethanol production in 2013 added 87,000 new jobs and accounted for $30.7 billion in household income. Moreover, a recent survey of ethanol industry employees found that 91% of them were satisfied with their jobs, which greatly surpasses the overall national average of 47.6%. Not only has ethanol production created jobs for people in need, but it also has made them happy with their new work.
Ethanol production from corn has also limited the amount of toxic chemicals that are associated with gasoline production. For example, Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), a common additive to gasoline, is not required to make ethanol.
Prior to 2005, the heavy use and exposure to MTBE posed health concerns such as nausea, headaches, and in high levels, cancer. According to the U.S. Environmental Protective Agency, the additive is known to contaminate groundwater and is “more resistant to natural biodegradation.” Consequently, MTBE levels remain relatively unchanged, but ethanol production is certainly not making the situation worse here.
However, this is where it takes a turn for ethanol and its darker side emerges.
Emory University’s Environmental Science Professor, Dr. Eri Saikawa, explains how even though the ethanol tailpipe emissions may be less than those from gasoline, it isn’t the full story. While the process of obtaining gasoline is fairly understood, the same cannot be said for ethanol.
In comparison to gasoline, which has been used since the 16th century, ethanol has barely left a mark in history since it only became readily used 10 years ago. Therefore, the overall process of turning corn into ethanol and its effects are not as well understood.
Tremendous amounts of fertilizer are needed to keep up with the mass amounts of corn required for U.S. ethanol production. While fertilizers can have a natural origin, the rate that ethanol is made requires for the production of synthetic fertilizers.
This technique, called the Haber Process, uses natural gas to make fertilizer, but makes high amounts of carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas originally thought to be lessened by ethanol use. What’s more are the emissions from the fertilizers themselves.
High amounts of nitrous oxide are emitted from the soil additive used to grow corn. According to Dr. Saikawa, nitrous oxide is currently the 3rd largest greenhouse gas and is a major stratospheric ozone depleting substance. The crux of the problem is that “so many (emissions) are coming from the natural soil.” Since nitrous oxide already occurs in natural fertilizer, it is difficult to regulate additional emissions from man-made fertilizer.
Dr. Saikawa is a firm believer that corn should be used for food and not for fuel. Her work in developing countries has found that those struggling with food security sometimes have ethanol as a top exported good. Even though farmers are growing the exported goods, the money isn’t necessarily going back to them. Instead, the elite benefit more from the process of exportation.
If current practices continue, the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer. Dr. Saikawa predicts that the “disparity will continue” if ethanol production occurs.
Ben Perlmutter, an environmentally conscious undergraduate student at Emory University, also believes that corn-based ethanol production should be discouraged. Perlmutter explains that corn is an “effective food source and also an incredibly important one.” He also adds, “corn’s value as fuel source is much more in doubt.”
Researchers have also found that when corn is used for ethanol, parts of the world experience other serious problems related to a lack of corn for food.
Dr. Colin Carter, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, explains in his NY Times op-ed, “Corn for Food, Not Fuel,” that compared to other food crops, corn’s yield as a fuel is relatively low. Because of its improper use as a non-food source, countries around the world feel the effects of inflation, slower economic growth, and political instability. Because of the rising frequency of droughts, the effects are heightened and countries have a harder time bouncing back.
However, some scientists question whether corn should even be grown in the first place. In a study that analyzed energy input-yield ratios of various crops made into biofuels, Dr. David Pimentel and Dr. Tad Patzek, found that corn uses more herbicides and pesticides than any other crop in the U.S. They also explain that corn, compared to any other crop grown in the U.S., requires more nitrogen fertilizer, which is a major groundwater and river water pollutant.
Today, the food versus fuel debate may not have the same urgency or weight as other issues, but it should still be of concern to everyone. As a crop, corn is highly versatile and brings benefits to both sides, but there is no clear winner. If anything, both sides are losing because practices for growing corn and producing ethanol haven’t changed much since this issue began 10 years ago.
It might be that corn simply isn’t the ideal crop for either use. Other crops should be studied more to serve as potentially better fuel and food sources with less drawbacks.
However as long as economic gain continues to be a goal for many, corn might be around for a while. Dr. Gunderson explains, “The economic systems are not neutral. There are preferences in terms of guiding the trajectory of development.” Right now, the “agricultural system drives corn-based ethanol and supports a corn-based ethanol solution,” says Dr. Gunderson.
Changing to a crop that replaces corn could solve many issues in the food versus fuel debate, but it might not happen anytime soon.
Gunderson, Lance. Personal interview. 23 Mar. 2015.
Saikawa, Eri. Personal interview. 26 Mar. 2015.
Perlmutter, Ben. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2015.
Copulos, Milton. “Ethanol Facts: Energy Security.” Ethanol Facts: Energy Security. 6 Apr. 2007. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
“Ethanol Facts: Environment.” Ethanol Facts: Environment. Ethanol Renewable Fuels Association, 2 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
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Pimentel, David, and Tad W. Patzek. “Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, And Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean And Sunflower.” Natural Resources Research (2005): 65-76. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.