Busting the Mythology of Food vs. Fuel
by Jeff Rice (Journal-Advocate) Making ethanol doesn’t rob the hungry of needed nutrition … Ethanol has long been recognized as an additive to increase octane and help internal combustion engines burn cleaner. Until 2005, the chief oxygenation additive was primarily methyl tert-butyl ether or MTBE. But when MTBE began showing up in trace amounts in drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned it. In order to hasten production of ethanol as a substitute, billions of dollars of subsidies and tax incentives were offered to ethanol producers and in short order plants began popping up all over the Midwest.
As the production ramped up, so did the opposition. The most frantic objection was that ethanol production suddenly cut into the world’s food supply and caused the price of corn to skyrocket which, in turn, drove up the price of beef. Neither, it turns out, is true.
While the ramp-up did make feeding corn to cattle more expensive in the short term, cattle feeders had bigger problems. Like drought. According to Randy Blach, CEO of CattleFax in Centennial, beef prices were rising because herd sizes were falling, all because drought was destroying pastures.
“I’d say the drought from 2006 to about 2012 really had more to do with beef prices,” Blach said. “We saw some price impact from the ramp-up (of ethanol production in 2005 and 2006) but the prevailing cause as time went on was drought.”
The U.S. dollar suddenly dropped in value on the international market in 2006, as reported by Jephraim Gundzik of the Power and Interest News Report. That caused food commodity prices, which are measured in U.S. dollars, to appear to leap upward. At the same time, according to a 2008 PRNewswire report, China was rapidly expanding its meat consumption, so it was importing more corn than ever for its own cattle herds. And a month before that report came a particularly damning one from Mark Whistler’s Forex Force blog: “At the end of the day, global protectionist tariffs are the main catalyst behind elevated commodity prices. But most governments don’t want you to know that. The mainstream media doesn’t understand it… and that’s why you haven’t read about it yet.”
Corn production set an all-time record in 2007, well into the ethanol ramp-up, and again in 2009, but prices stayed high. Remember those corn exports to China? After exporting almost no corn to China for decades, the U.S began shipping a million tons a year to China in 2009. By 2012 — the year drought caused corn production to plummet — corn exports to China were at 5 million tons.
And the hits keep coming; in April 2014 James Conca, senior scientist for the Institute for Energy and the Environment at New Mexico State University, published an article in Forbes Magazine that attempted to prove that corn ethanol is of no use. Among Conca’s bloopers:
“In 2000 over 90 percent of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock … In 2013, however, 40 percent went to produce ethanol …”
Well, yes, but in 2000, the U.S. produced 251 million tons of corn. By 2013, after rebounding from a drought, the U.S. produced 100 million tons more than in 2000, or one-third more. And this year’s crop is estimated at more than 380 million tons. So while ethanol production may have helped blunt the drop in corn prices this year, it isn’t denying food to the hungry masses.
The second myth about ethanol is that it damages engines and reduces gas mileage. The first half of that is easy to counter; ethanol is a natural cleanser, so when it first appeared in gas tanks, it began to clean out all of the varnish and sludge that naturally builds up in engines that burn gasoline. That fouled spark plugs and injectors, and led to the urban legend that ethanol was ruining engines. It wasn’t. Once the gunk got cleaned out, engines ran just fine on ethanol-mixed gasoline.
1 BTU of energy input can yield up to 60 BTU of ethanol energy.
As for the alleged increases in fertilizer and diesel fuel needed to grow all that corn, the same report shows dramatic economies of scale being used. Producers can grow significantly more corn, all things being equal, with only incremental increases in fuel and fertilizer. Add in genetic modification, and the efficiency grows even more. READ MORE / MORE