Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Ethanol Farce: What it means for Agriculture and the Environment

Lately there has been a huge push for ethanol and bio diesel fuel production in the United States. In wake of the growing problem of sustainability and fossil fuels companies such as Archer, Daniels, and Midland (McCain 2003), and head U.S. officials such as President G.W. Bush and especially current Pres. Obama are supporting the production of ethanol using corn and are making huge profits, which are subsidized by fed and state governments. Besides personal economic goals, these efforts are an attempt to accomplish a couple of things:
1. Create somewhat of a replacement to oil.
2. Stimulate economic growth in the agricultural and technologies sector.
3. Provide squeaky clean energy, while slowing down the effects of global climate change.

Now before I present my argument, I want to provide the absolute basic science behind ethanol and bio diesels and why the push exists. Plants such as corn, sugar cane, and switch grass are cultivated for ethanol production where as soybeans and sunflower produce bio diesels. These plants when harvested and refined provide a fuel, that when burned releases the energy stored in the cellulose present in plant cells. Plants utilize photosynthesis, (take in CO2, release O2 and H2O), and this is why ethanol is so intriguing. All fuels release some form of GHG emissions (Carbon dioxide, sulfides, methane, NOx and SOx, etc), however what corn can do that coal cannot is sequester the CO2 when growing. Corn in theory, can capture as much CO2 in production, as it releases into the atmosphere when burned. Thus, this creates a net gain of zero.

So now we know what makes this agenda appealing to policy makers. This process appears to be the ability to harvest a renewable energy source that can eliminate global climate change. The problem is that this sort of perfect energy system does not exist. For corn production of ethanol, the true data shows that the ratio of energy(kcal) put in, proportional to what comes out is not 1:1, but 1: 3.8. Taking account of all the steps in the corn-ethanol process (transportation, feedstock, fertilizers, irrigation), we can not achieve a net energy return. Oh and by the way, the so called anti-warming effect of corn, it takes 160 years for the effect to be noticeable. Climate change is happening now.

Now for the kicker, and a bit more relative to our discussion. What does this ethanol agenda mean in terms of agriculture and food production? Corn production requires 270 gallons of gasoline equivalents/ hectare of corn field. 50% of the required energy for this process comes from the feedstock alone.

"Alternatively, farmers can divert existing crops or croplands into bio fuels, which causes similar emissions indirectly. The diversion triggers higher crop prices, and farmers around the world respond by clearing more forest and grassland to replace crops for feed and food. Studies have confirmed that higher soybean prices accelerate clearing of Brazilian rain forest. (9) Projected corn ethanol in 2016 would use 43% of the U.S. corn land harvested for grain in 2004 (1)-overwhelmingly for livestock (10)—requiring big land use changes to replace that grain.(Searchinger, Timothy) "

Instead farmers could try to boost production using increased aids, such as irrigation, fertilizers, and reducing crop rotational cycles.

"Our analysis assumes that present growth trends in yields continue but that positive and negative effects on yields from bio fuels balance out.
We calculated that an ethanol increase of 56 billion liters, diverting corn from 12.8 million hectares of U.S. cropland, would in turn bring 10.8 million hectares of additional land into cultivation. Locations would include 2.8 million hectares in Brazil, 2.3 million hectares in China and India, and 2.2 million hectares in the U.S. (Searchinger, Timothy)"

Now that the true data has been presented it is clear that corn based ethanol production in the U.S. and around the globe as a large scale energy alternative is not only impossible it is extremely harmful to the environment and global food supply.

Citations:
(Searchinger, Timothy) http://ees2.geo.rpi.edu/Bopp/ENV%20GEOL%20S'09/C%20Ethanol%20Biofuels/Journal%20articles/Searchinger%20Science.pdf
For a article about Obama's ethanol plans:
http://thehill.com/the-executive/obama-faces-key-decisions-about-ethanol-2009-01-08.html

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