Corn for Fuel Ethanol…Really?

The goals of ethanol can be thought of like this:

1.) Reduce the price of gasoline marginally

2.) Reduce automobile pollution

3.) Sell more corn

Sounds great, right? Wait for it, wait for it…not so fast.

There are lots of problems with using corn ethanol for fuel.

Ethanol is less fuel efficient.

In 2007, Consumer Reports ran a comparison between pure gasoline and E85 (85% ethanol). Here’s an excerpt:

When running on E85 there was no significant change in acceleration. Fuel economy, however, dropped across the board. In highway driving, gas mileage decreased from 21 to 15 mpg; in city driving, it dropped from 9 to 7 mpg. You could expect a similar decrease in gas mileage in any current FFV.

Ethanol isn’t as much better for the environment as you’d think.

In 2007, Edmunds ran a very interesting comparison between pure gasoline and E85 (85% ethanol). Here’s an excerpt:

By relating our observed fuel economy to CO2 emission figures found in the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide we determined that our gasoline round trip produced 706.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. On E85, the CO2 emissions came to 703.1 pounds. The difference came out in E85’s favor, but only by a scant 0.5 percent. Call it a tie. This is certainly not the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we had been led to expect.

Burning E10 (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline mixture that is becoming so ubiquitous) can reduce some smog…but is a small reduction in emissions like this even worth going this way? It’s like we think the only way to the energy future is by baby steps so we don’t rock the capitalist cradle.

Ethanol costs the motorist more in the long run.

Again, from the Edmunds article:

A motorist, filling up and comparing the prices of regular gas and E85, might see the price advantage of E85 (in our case 33 cents or 9.7 percent less) as a bargain. However, since fuel economy is significantly reduced, the net effect is that a person choosing to run their flex-fuel vehicle on E85 on a trip like ours will spend 22.8 percent more to drive the same distance. For us, the E85 trip was about $30 more expensive — about 22.9 cents per mile on E85 versus 18.7 cents per mile with gasoline.

Connecting the food supply to fuel supply could be disastrous.

Do we really want to use prime farmland to grow corn so we can put it in our fuel tanks? Prime farmland should be for growing food. Everyone needs food and using a combustion engine is a luxury. We’ve seen that connecting food and fuel can result in global food price scares and those least able to afford food in our world are affected the most. I’ll leave it at that, but really think to yourself about why connecting the food supply and the fuel supply could be disastrous.

Is ethanol an energy-negative premise?

I’m not going to dive in to the specifics or the math because frankly I don’t have the time. However, consider the enormous petroleum inputs that the modern “conventional” way of growing corn uses. Do we really think we’re gaining an energy advantage by growing corn with oil to make ethanol which will replace gasoline made from oil?

A 2007 National Geographic article showed that for every 1 unit of current energy used to make ethanol we get 1.3 units back. That’s not much of an improvement. A team of UC Berkeley researchers showed corn ethanol’s energy balance and greenhouse gas production is “marginally better” than gasoline. Is this really the next great hope?

Ethanol can’t replace gasoline.

If the U.S. converted ALL of the corn and soybeans it grows into biofuels….we’d still only produce about 12% of gasoline needs and 6% of diesel needs. WOW. This just drives the point home that corn ethanol and other biofuels are a waste of time. The furthest endpoint of ethanol production using corn is a paltry 12% of gasoline needs. And there’s no way that all of our corn crop would ever be used for ethanol production.

My Take

If we as people are truly interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and polluted air in our country and the world, we need to think far beyond biofuels. Oil pumped out of the ground was the first and last great biofuel. It’s run its course and we know that abundant cheap gasoline was a one shot deal. We’re nearing the very end of that deal. Oil is too polluting and it’s going to run out soon.

Ethanol from corn isn’t the answer. At most the U.S. could cover only 12% of gasoline engine needs even if we converted every last corn field to an ethanol corn field. That number alone is reason to turn from corn ethanol toward something that can really take America to the next generation of energy. The only way current corn farmers can get the yields on corn grown for ethanol to make the whole enterprise worthwhile is to spray pesticides, herbicides and petroleum-based fertilizers on the fields. And then think of all the combustion engines it takes to harvest the corn and transport it to the local ethanol plant and then all the way to your local fuel station. With crude real world testing, Edmunds and Consumer Reports have already shown that E85 vehicles are less fuel-efficient and cost more to drive the same distance. And the CO2 emissions difference is petty. And where are the E100 vehicles, is ethanol destined to always need part gasoline? So far I’ve only heard of a Formula 1 racing car that uses 100% ethanol and some specialized vehicles in Brazil. You’d need an entire new generation of vehicles that could actually use 100% pure ethanol. How is that sustainable? I’m really struggling to see how ethanol is a major improvement?

A lot of people are getting excited about cellulosic ethanol or algae-based ethanol. But ethanol does not confer much of an environmental advantage and any other benefit is only marginal. Why can’t we as a people see this and move on toward electric vehicles (powered by renewable energy) or hydrogen fuel cells or the crown jewel…running on pure hydrogen which is the most abundant element in the universe and would be truly zero emission. Why are we so hung up on advanced biofuels? Why are we more concerned about market restraints than we are about real-world restraints that can exert far more influence than economic theory. Why can’t we have another Manhattan Project that puts a real dent in the global energy problem? Good question.

Bottom line: The marginal benefit of using corn for ethanol is not worth it.

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Corn For Livestock Feed

I’m not going to be able to cover every aspect or potential counter argument in this post. And I’m going to be concentrating on corn that is fed to cattle because that’s the poster child for “corn-fed”. Let’s just get that out-of-the-way. But I’m going to try really hard to cover the important things!

The 13.1 billion bushel 2009 U.S. maize crop was, according to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report by the USDA, used mostly for Livestock Feed. 

5,525 million bu. were used for livestock feed which amounts to 42% of the maize crop. 

From PBS Frontline:

“Before the second World War, all American beef was “grass-finished,” meaning that cattle ate pasture grass for the duration of their lives. Today, the vast majority of cattle spend anywhere from 60-120 days in feedlots being fattened with grain before being slaughtered. Unless the consumer deliberately chooses grass-finished or “free-range” meat, the beef bought at the grocery store will be of the corn-finished variety.”

Why the change?

Several reasons, among them:

1. Cattle reach slaughter weight faster when corn finished.

2. Better fat marbling which supposedly tastes better

3. You can raise more corn-fed cattle on less land (i.e. feedlot) than letting them be pasture finished (i.e. that takes more land).

This is all to say that corn-fed cattle are cheaper for the consumer and more profitable for the producer. Who can argue with that you might say? Isn’t that the goal of modern animal agriculture? Cheaper prices at the checkout and more profits for the producer…everyone wins, right?

Not so fast.

Just some  of the problems with feeding corn to cattle:

1. Corn-fed beef just isn’t as healthy as grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef has more Omega-3 fatty acids (the good ones), more Vitamin E, more beta-carotene, less saturated fat and calories and more conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). CLAs are known for anti-cancer and cardiovascular benefits. Meat products from grass-fed animals can produce 300-500% more CLA than those of cattle fed the usual diet of 50% hay and silage, and 50% grain.

2. Corn has a little environmental problem. From an Environmental Working Group (EWG) article: “A new study released today by the US Geological Survey shows that efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin are having little impact. Nitrates come mostly from the over-application of chemical fertilizers on crops in the Corn Belt, fouling streams and rivers and eventually helping to swell the annual Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone.” The “Dead Zone” is roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, around 3,300 square miles. The corn industry lobby tried to deflect claims that corn production is responsible for the “Dead Zone”…but EWG has pointed out how it’s nothing more than a cop-out. Read this fascinating response.

3. Currently, corn-based beef production is an unsustainable enterprise. We use oil for every aspect of production. Oil for fertilizer to grow the corn. Oil to transport the corn to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle from the pasture to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle to the slaughterhouse. Oil to transport the meat to your local grocery store. Oil, oil, oil! Guess what, an oil-based system is not sustainable! It’s going to run out and before it does the price will skyrocket given limited availability to the point that oil-based systems of production will be a laughingstock.

4. Subsidies. The government doles out billions every year in subsidies to corn growers. This means that corn-production and subsequently any industry that relies on cheap corn is built on a house of cards. Take away the subsidies and the business model fails. The house falls down. EWG has calculated that corn subsidies from 1995-2010 totaled 77.1 BILLION DOLLARS! Why are we subsidizing an unsustainable industry that produces meat that is less healthy for people? Corn is produced for less than the real cost to grow it. What other industry enjoys such a luxury? If I wanted to start a small organic vegetable farm you can bet I wouldn’t be getting any subsidies to help me out.

5. There’s nothing “natural” about the conventional corn-finished feedlot way raising cattle. You see a lot of meat packages in the grocery store that say “all-natural” but all that means is that it meets the USDA definition of “natural” which is “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” What’s “natural” about feeding cows harvested corn? What’s natural about using lots of fertilizer and chemicals to grow that corn? What’s natural about using millions of gallons of oil to support the whole system? What’s natural about making a product which is less healthy than what the real natural grass-based system would give us?

6. Confinement on the feedlots. Like Bernie Mac’s character’s domino game in Ocean’s 13, “Nuff Said.”

Here’s a picture of what a typical feedlot looks like:

Here’s how I see things…

Cattle have evolved to eat and digest grass which has grown free of man-made input thanks to the energy of the sun. So, why do we spend hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on artificial fertilizers, chemicals and everything else it takes to grow lots and lots of corn that we feed to animals? Why do we use so much oil to make food for cattle when all the food they would ever need grows naturally without any other input than the sun and a little rain from above. Interestingly enough, cattle can graze standing corn. After all, corn is a type of grass. This can be used to take some of the stress off the pasture. But this is a far cry from growing corn and harvesting it so that it can be the exclusive feed of cattle in the feedlots.

A lot of people will counter that if we switch to grass-based systems, if we do everything you’re talking about then you have to choose which people in the world will starve to death as a result. I’d like to counter that line of reasoning with two points. First, we don’t have a global food shortage problem, we have a global food distribution problem. Second, people are already starving to death and I’m not aware of any goodwill programs from major animal agriculture companies that are trying to address that problem. We sure could make better use of grains by giving them to poor people than by feeding them to cattle so we Americans can have cheap meat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack every day.

Yes, at least initially, pastured meat products will cost more. I think that, along with any kind of change, scares people. It scares them into thinking, “What if meat costs more and I have to eat less of it?” People like meat, duh. But we Americans probably eat way too much of it. It’s no longer a special part of a meal. It is the meal.

I’m reminded of a quote from Agent Smith in The Matrix: “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

While I don’t think machines (i.e. the ones that took over in The Matrix) are the answer to our uniquely human problem. I do think it’s necessary to ponder that perhaps we’re over-consuming meat. We’ve taken the amount of meat that nature will provide for us with natural systems and twisted in to factory farming to give us more. We do whatever it takes to get more for less. Shouldn’t we be thinking that less can be more? I think so.

And it all boils down to…

Why do we spend billions of dollars countering a grass-based system that God has given us and try to replace it with an unnatural oil and corn based feedlot factory farm system? Like I’ve said before, I’m not an absolutist. So, if people just can’t part with “corn-fed” taste then I would be fine with the product as a specialty “every-once-in-a-while” treat that would cost more. And only if it wasn’t part of a factory farming feedlot system. If farmer John wants to raise a few corn-fed cows beside the majority of pastured cows that would be OK with me.

Using a pasture grass-based production system is about what’s right, not what’s status quo for a multi-billion dollar industry that sees a lot of money ending up in the hands of shareholders and CEOs and delivering us ever-increasing amounts of meat for less money. When all you consider is “How do we make this cheaper?” things start taking a back seat to that all-consuming goal of “cheapness.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a food system to be based on what’s cheapest. I’d like it to be based on what’s right.

Additional Note: I’ve been concentrating on beef cattle livestock feed. If I covered every aspect of corn used for livestock feed I’d write a novel. But, I thought you should know that a large portion of corn does go to hog production, dairy cow production and chicken production. Virtually all of these systems are also factory farm “bigger, better, cheaper” systems that are heavily oil-dependent, use animal-confinement and there is nothing “natural” about these systems. These animal products can also be part of a bigger grass-based system. Perhaps no one does grass-based better than Joel Salatin. He explains it in under 3 minutes in this must-watch video