13 April 2009

Ethanol Critics: What's Their Beef?

Posted by John Freeland

Drive small, drive less, walk more, eat less beef.

In 1980 we had a biologist running for president. Barry Commoner, standard-bearer for the Citizens Party, gave a speech at Calvin College in Grand Rapids and I drove across town on a rainy night to hear him. I’d read his book, Science & Survival and knew he was critical of nuclear power and the complicated, centralized government-military-industrial apparatus that supported it.

During the speech, Barry brought up biofuels, or “gasahol.” He briefly described growing corn and distilling a mash to make ethanol to use as motor fuel. The residue, he said, was rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and minerals that made an excellent fertilizer. At this, there was a collective “ooh” that wafted across the audience. We understood the balance. “Yeah, it’s a nice arrangement,” Barry said in his Brooklyn accent. Yeah. Yeah! He was having a good night, there among the believers. Barry referred to himself as a “congenital optimist.” The biosphere with its life and solar constant, not the lithosphere with its dwindling store of fossil fuels, would power our future.

NCGA Corn Usage 2008
Source: National Corn Growers Association

Today we’ve got ethanol – big time. Nearly a quarter of the Yellow Dent “King Corn” crop goes to fuel production. Farmers are doing much better. About three years ago, corn was selling around $1.50 per bushell. Last summer, it rose to over $7 before “crashing” to about $3.50 a bushel as speculators pulled out of commodities.

Today, the ethanol industry falls short of Commoner’s dream, however, with respect to the distiller’s residue. It’s not plowed back into the soil as fertilizer. It, along with nearly the half of the corn yield is sold to confined animal feed operations (CAFO’s), to make meat and dairy products. CAFO’s stink, and the reliability of rural manure management is poor. Spreading manure on fields is weather dependent and runoff is common. The CAFO’s and environmental regulators get sued for polluting the rivers and lack of enforcement of regulations. CAFO’s on the Plains are remaking the topography, building mountains of dung covered with thousands of cows like ants on an ant hill, fed and watered constantly and pumped with antibiotics. I’ve seen such places first-hand. A dark brown dung heap baking in the summer like an asphalt parking lot has to be a miserable place. The fact is, under prevailing conditions, beef production is a dirty business.

The third highest use of corn is export, much of it to China and Japan, not to feed hungry people, but to feed cows and pigs and support growing demand for meat in those countries. A lot of corn goes to producing High Fructose Corn Sweetener, which appears to be a factor in growing rates of metabolic disorders such as diabetes, and obesity as mentioned here, and here.

The charge that using corn to make motor fuel starves people is ludicrous. Only a tiny fraction of Yellow Dent corn goes directly into cereal and basic human food. It’s a raw material for a wide array of sometimes dubious products, like sweeteners, and the producers of those products are sore at having to pay higher prices for their raw materials.

One group defending ethanol against those who want to end mandates for biofuels is FoodPriceTruth.org. They argue that the number one driver of higher food prices is higher oil prices. Considering the food on our dinner plates has traveled an average of 1500 miles, they’ve got a point.

Some ideas to ponder: Barry Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology

1. Everything is Connected to Everything Else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.

2. Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.

3. Nature Knows Best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system.”

4. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. In nature, both sides of the equation must balance, for every gain there is a cost, and all debts are eventually paid.