Monday, November 12, 2007

When Corn is Not a Cure

The New York Times reported today on growing resistance to new ethanol distilleries in the midwest (requires free registration to read the whole article).

Wait -- wasn't corn-based alcohol supposed to be a cure for our nation's fuel crisis?

Readers of Michale Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, already know the problems with corn-fed industrial agriculture: changes made in the late 1970's in the way that corn farmers were compensated created a system in which the government encourages overproduction of corn instead of paying farmers to allow their land to go fallow. I visited rural Indiana this summer and saw the results. Farmers now plant every last square foot, right up to the roadsides, leaving no hedgerows for wildlife. They pack the corn in as tight as they can, and feed the corn chemical fertilizers to make it grow as fast as possible, which results in nutrient-rich runoff into streams, with a resulting upset to wildlife. Without letting the land lie fallow, which allows some humus to be restored, the land loses topsoil at an alarming rate. All that corn needs water, but there's only so much water in the aquifers, and farmers know they've pretty much reached the limit in many areas of the corn belt. Mountains of cheap corn pile up, leaving food scientists to figure out how to make the current U.S. population eat more of it than ever -- which is why your soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup instead of real sugar. A lot of that corn gets stuffed down gullets of steers destined to be corn-fed beef, but their digestive systems aren't adapted for digesting grain, resulting in a host of health problems that would kill them if they weren't slaughtered first. Grass is a healthier diet, and involves more efficient energy conversion (plus, according to some studies, free-range grass-fed beef has a higher proportion of healthy omega-3 fats than corn-fed beef, and lots of folks think it tastes better, too).

Okay, so mountains of corn, prices falling, farmers barely getting by -- why isn't corn-based ethanol good news?

Because we still have an industrial food system plugged into corn. Farmers can't feed the system AND the distilleries just by growing more corn. They're already maxed out. When corn is shunted to distilleries, it drives up food prices for everyone.

Could we unplug from the system? Demand free-range meats? Refuse soft drinks sweetened with corn syrup? Give up breakfast cereals made from de-germed yellow corn meal? Spurn corn-based "green" plastics? Free up more corn for ethanol?

Yes, it's possible. The system is vast and its corn-based tendrils are in just about every manufactured food in the grocery store. Unplugging all at once would put a whole lot of people out of business all at once, but taking small-but-steady measures to support organic agriculture, locally-grown produce, and free-range meat production will help create a market for more sustainable agricultural practices.

Yet corn-based ethanol still has its limits, and that limit is drawn by how much water is available to corn farmers. Is it better to use farmland and aquifers to feed our people or to drive our cars? That's an ethical issue that isn't easily resolved. But it sounds like some savvy midwest farmers already have strong opinions on the issue.


Phillip said...

My uncle and I was just talking about this very subject last night. I wasn't aware of the drawbacks to this alternative fuel until he explained it (just like you have).

mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

Very interesting. Have you seen the documentary "King Corn"?

NBC news had a spot the other night on developing switch grass into a biofuel. Apparently it stores more energy than other crops, such as corn. I can't find the exact link but I think the story was "Searching Yellowstone for answer to energy woes" -- which is about a looking for a bacteria that can convert energy from switch grass.

CommonWeeder said...

Turning corn into a biofuel doesn't gain us much energy because it takes so much energy to produce. Switchgrass into biofuel is an improvement, and the latest improvement is bacteria that break down cellulose (See NYTimes Sunday Magazine for 12/9/07 - the Ideas issue)so that cellulose can be used as a biofuel. A problem still remains though. We would still be burning fuel in our cars, and that means continuing greenhouse gas emissions. I rather like the idea of tethered wind turbines that float 1000 feet in the air where it is always windy (See the same Ideas issue) producing clean electricity. If we had enough of these we could plug in our cars and drive without polluting.