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Young corn plants grow next to the an ethanol plant.

Glen Stubbe, Dml - Star Tribune

Too much corn is being wasted on fuel

  • Article by: JASON HILL
  • August 11, 2012 - 5:19 PM

What a difference a few months makes.

This spring farmers planted over 96 million acres of corn across the United States, the most in 75 years. Favorable weather allowed them to get seeds in the ground faster than ever before. All signs pointed to a bumper crop.

Today more than 1,300 counties across 31 states are designated drought disaster areas. Farmers are expected to harvest only 90 percent of the land they planted. On the acres they will harvest, yields are expected to be lower than they have been in nearly 20 years.

Markets have responded to this news, with corn prices rising by more than 50 percent in the last couple months.

What isn't changing is the amount of ethanol we will produce from corn this year. In fact, it may even be higher than in 2011. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard requires annual increases in the amount of ethanol sold. This year Americans must purchase 13 billion gallons.

How much of our corn does this require? Had this been an average year, we would be using around a third of our corn for ethanol. This year, with the drought, we will use around half, astonishing given that more acres were planted to corn this spring than any year since the 1930s.

Think of it this way. The next time you're driving along a country highway, every other row of corn you see will end up in a gas tank.

Ten years ago, we used less than 10 percent of our corn for fuel. State and federal mandates have now increased this to the point where for the first time ever there is a very good likelihood that we will burn more corn than we and our animals eat.

What do we get in return? Enough fuel to supply less than 5 percent of our national demand for gasoline. In other words, less than one in 20 miles that Americans drive will be powered by ethanol.

Think of this another way: If we increase the average efficiency of the vehicles we drive by one mile per gallon, we will do more to advance our energy independence than by converting half the corn we grow into ethanol. New federal vehicle efficiency standards are much more effective for weaning ourselves from foreign oil.

What is more, corn ethanol is a highly inefficient and polluting fuel. It takes nearly as much energy to produce ethanol as is released when it is burned. Large amounts of natural gas, increasingly coming from fracking, are used in its production. Corn ethanol damages air quality more than gasoline, and it most likely does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, either.

The public has been told that corn ethanol is not the end goal of our biofuel endeavors a stepping stone to something better. We have been asked to be patient, assured that what we learn from producing corn ethanol will lead to advanced biofuels from biomass sources such as perennial grasses and fast-growing trees that have a much lower impact on the environment.

Sadly, it looks as though the opposite will be true. The rising demand for corn for ethanol has made it much less likely that farmers will grow other sources of biomass on their land. Already this is the fourth consecutive year of increases in corn acreage. With this year's drought, we can expect the trend to continue.

What can be done? The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to waive the mandate, but so far has not chosen to do so. Even if it did, the state blending mandates already in place would ensure that about a third of this year's harvest would be converted into fuel.

We frequently concern ourselves with the unintended negative consequences of legislation. But this year's drought serves as yet another reminder that the intended consequences are often just as damaging. We continue to support an industry that has a disproportionately large impact on our food markets relative to the benefits we see in our fuel markets.

In the short term, waiving the federal ethanol mandate would offer consumers some relief. But we also should take this year's events as an opportunity to broadly rethink our current biofuel policies.

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Jason Hill is McKnight land-grant professor in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota.

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