The Great Ethanol Debate: Food vs. Fuel?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 26, 2012

FORT COLLINS, COLORADO--“The concept that corn ethanol is a ‘food vs. fuel’ issue is too simplified,” says Ken Reardon, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Colorado State University. “Corn prices are up more because of the high cost of petroleum, climate change and other factors.”

I am sitting in Professor Reardon’s office in Fort Collins, and he wants to rock my world. The U.S. produces 400 million tons of grain annually, and 124 million tons goes to ethanol distilleries, so that’s undoubtedly a huge factor in the rapid rise of corn prices. But it’s far from the only one.

A flex-fuel truck. There are six million of these from GM, three million more from Ford and Chrysler. (General Motors photo)
A flex-fuel truck. There are six million of these from GM, three million more from Ford and Chrysler. (General Motors photo)

Ethanol still has many challenges, particularly in transportation. Your uncle drives an ethanol-capable truck like the one in the picture? He’s far from alone. We have nine million flex-fuel vehicles on the road from the Big Three; the stations that can fuel them are still mainly clustered in the Midwest. Most cars and trucks capable of running E85 (with 15 percent gasoline) don’t do it all that often. Ethanol producers are waiting for the Feds to approve a big increase in ethanol’s use as a gasoline additive, from 10 percent now to 15 percent soon.

Robert Samuelson, a columnist in the Washington Post, typifies the “food vs. fuel” argument. “It’s the extra demand for grains to make biofuels, spurred heavily in the United States by government tax subsidies and fuel mandates, that has pushed prices dramatically higher,” he wrote. And while all of that was definitely true in 2007 when he wrote it, since then the Congressional tide has turned against ethanol subsidies, and climate’s bigger role has come into focus.

Ethanol refueling is easy—as long as there’s a station nearby.
Ethanol refueling is easy—as long as there’s a station nearby.

Lester Brown, who founded both Worldwatch and the Earth Policy Institute, and is described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” asked me during an interview, “Do you know much about the sex life of the corn plant?” The mind reels at the question. I didn’t actually know much, but he did. “Corn is very sensitive to temperature, and it’s particularly sensitive during reproduction,” he said. “For the corn to pollinate, grains of pollen have to fall on strands of silk, which conducts the pollen inside the ear to a kernel site. But in extremely hot weather, the silk dries up prematurely, turns brown, and will not carry the pollen.”

Brown continues, “A heat wave centered in Moscow in 2010 caused a 40 percent grain loss, from 100 million tons to 60 million tons. If we had a similar heat wave centered in Chicago, we’d have lost 160 million of 400 tons, and it would have created chaos in the world grain markets.” And, it goes without saying, much higher corn prices.

According to a new report in the journal Nature Climate Science, climate change will affect corn prices more than many other things that have captured the public’s attention, including oil prices, government policies and biofuel production requirements. (The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard calls for 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels such as corn ethanol by 2022. It also calls for four billion gallons of advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol, about which more later.)

The New York Times wrote that the study “suggests that unless farmers develop more heat-tolerant corn varieties or gradually move corn production from the United States into Canada, frequent heat waves will cause sharp price spikes.” Study author Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford said he thought climate would be “a minor player” in corn’s price volatility. The study proved him wrong.

America produces a LOT of corn. (Flickr photo by bottlerocketprincess)
America produces a LOT of corn. (Flickr photo by bottlerocketprincess)

Dan Becker, who runs the Safe Climate Campaign at the Center for Auto Safety, is no fan of corn ethanol. “Ironically,” he says, “burning corn ethanol may cure the corn ethanol problem.  Burning it makes global warming worse which may dramatically decrease corn yields making it prohibitively expensive to make the stuff.”

Americans may be undecided about whether global warming is real, but a large consensus believes that extreme weather events like 90-degree weather in New York in April, and Moscow heat waves are caused by climate change. A Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University Center for Climate Change poll found that approximately two-thirds link bizarre weather events of 2011, and mild winter to global warming.

Fossil fuel is a major player here. Professor Reardon told me, “Agricultures use way more fossil fuel than most people realize. Rice prices also go up with gas prices. They overlay very neatly.”
Back to Lester Brown. He tells me that corn was always a poor relation in world grain markets compared to wheat, but today corn’s stock has risen so far that the prices are essentially on par—$6.40 a bushel for either one. And production of both uses a lot of fuel. It takes seven to ten calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food, NYU reports. Here’s a CNN video on the “food vs. fuel” controversy:

A lot of the fuel goes into producing fertilizer—making nitrogen-based fertilizers and distributing them requires 5.5 gallons of fuel per acre, says Harper’s in “The Oil We Eat.” And making one kilogram of that fertilizer releases 3.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, says the Soil Conservation Council of Canada. Some 23 percent of food energy goes to processing and packaging, says Danielle Murray’s “Oil and Food: A Rising Security Challenge.” Brown says that the energy used to take food to the farm gate is about a quarter of the total. “The other three-fourths is packaging and transportation,” Brown said, “Tractors and combine harvesting turns out to be surprisingly efficient.”

The “food vs. fuel” argument is nonetheless a compelling reason to switch American corn ethanol to its cellulosic cousin, which ends the competition with the dinner table. But cellulosic ethanol (chemically identical, but produced from the woody parts of plants) is still in its infancy, with commercial production mostly a gleam in producers’ eyes.

James Imbler, president and CEO of cellulosic producer ZeaChem, which makes ethanol from biomass, told me his company’s demonstration plant is up and running in Boardman, Oregon. Much of the production is floating on the Columbia River to be added to gasoline—again, the E15 mandate is a big boon to the industry. ZeaChem sources sustainably harvested hybrid poplar trees from nearby plantations, so transportation costs are kept to a minimum.

ZeaChem’s demonstration plant in Boardman, Oregon. (ZeaChem photo)
ZeaChem’s demonstration plant in Boardman, Oregon. (ZeaChem photo)

The big news is that ZeaChem is going to build a commercial-scale plant right next to the demo-scale one, producing up to 25 million gallons a year. It’s scheduled to break ground next year, and go online in 2014. In January, ZeaChem announced that it had received a $232.5 million loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture to build the plant (which will also produce salable chemicals in addition to ethanol).

Imbler thinks that long-term cellulosic ethanol “should sell at prices comparable to gasoline.” He says he can produce fuel at $2.50 a gallon, which sounds competitive after taxes and other costs are added. If and when that happens, we won’t be talking about “food vs. fuel” anymore.

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