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August 21, 2006

Ruminating on ethanol

Our recent article on the ethanol industry generated a bit of controversy on both sides of the gasohol debate, with a few scientific observers writing in with their thoughts on ethanol’s real costs and benefits. Though their arguments are quite technical and not exactly fit to run in our regular letter-to-the-editor section, we do think that the contrasting analyses might be interesting to people following the issue. The arguments presented here are basically gathered from comments submitted through private email exchanges, and have not been fully vetted for accuracy (and indeed, some of the science out there is still speculative). But the comments have been edited somewhat to make the information more accessible to readers.

Crazy for corn fuel:

David Blume, president of the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, writes:

First of all, statements about ethanol production competing with food production for land are fully erroneous for a number of reasons. First of all, ethanol only uses the starch of the grain. All the protein and fat are retained in its by-product Dried Distillers Grains and Solubles. Since cattle are incapable of digesting starch, feeding DDGS instead of corn results in a net increase in meat or milk production instead of the starch simply being converted to manure. The vast majority of our corn is fed to animals and only a small portion is fed to humans, the majority of which is high-fructose corn sweetener – hardly a staple.

Quoting David Pimentel on ethanol is the equivalent of quoting the American Petroleum Institute. You quoted him with his often-repeated line, "We're importing oil from Saudi Arabia to produce ethanol in the US at a net energy loss," This is an intentionally misleading statement. Energy used in making alcohol, fertilizer etc. generally does come from fossil fuels like natural gas and coal, but emphatically not oil as Pimentel likes to imply.

Still, using other fossil fuels is far from ideal. But two other countries with alcohol-fuel production, Brazil and India, produce ethanol using heat and electricity that comes from sugar cane biomass-fired boilers in the case of Brazil, and methane in the case of India. New plants in the US are being built with this technology.

You refer to ethanol lobby as if it were some sort of big player. The reason that ethanol has such sway in Washington is not due to lobbying but the simple fact that communities in the midwest around alcohol plants are more prosperous and have much less unemployment. The support for the industry in the midwest is from the constituents much more than any lobby. Just try to get elected in the middle of the country and stand for importing more oil at the expense of American communities! When it comes to lobbying, let's focus our concern on the American Petroleum Institute before we zero in on an industry that is dominated by farmer owners.

And yes there are better ways to make alcohol than by growing corn. As the alcohol fuel business grows we can expect crop mix to shift to fodder beets, syrup sorghum, jerusalem artichokes and someday sooner rather than later cellulose crops. Ecologically, diversifying our agriculture away from monocultures of corn, with energy crop rotations, would radically decrease fertilizer use and pesticide use. Far from being an ecological disaster, alcohol production is very likely to be what leads us out of our disastrous reliance on industrial monoculture.

The skeptics mull over food-based energy:

David Pimentel, a scientist interviewed in the article, responds:

Cattle do not digest starches, sugars, distillers grains (DDG), or cellulose directly. All of these materials pass through the four ruminant stomachs of cattle and are modified by the microbes that are in these stomachs. DDG is a substitute for soybean meal. However, soybean meal is more nutritious and more economical to feed. The starches fed cattle are NOT converted directly into manure. This is why the beef producers report that shunting corn away from cattle is costing the consumer an extra $1 billion per year.

I do NOT receive one penny from any oil company or the American Petroleum Institute. I wish they would provide me with some funds. But several large oil companies are involved in ethanol production, including Shell Oil, BP Petroleum, Citicorp, and Chevron.

Most ethanol plants in the country run on natural gas, only a few on coal. Only nitrogen fertilizer is produced from natural gas, the other fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, and fuels come from oil. Thus, most ethanol production depends on oil and natural gas and both of these are imported energy resources.

Increasing the cost of meat, milk, and egg production by removing significant quantities of corn grain from livestock is increasing the costs of these animal products by billions of dollars per year and significantly increasing the costs of milk and meat in this nation, especially to the poor people. Burning food in our automobiles has serious ethical implications!

The environmental impacts of producing ethanol from corn grain are enormous. These include: severe soil erosion; heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer; and use of large quantities of pesticides (insecticides and herbicides). In addition to significant contribution to global warming there is the use of 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of water required for the production of gallon ethanol, and for every gallon of ethanol produced there are 12 gallons of sewage effluent produced.


Alex Farrell, another scientist interviewed in the article, responds:

A basic question is, what is the feed value of ethanol co-products versus whole corn?

First, all of the protein in whole corn is present in DGS, thus protein tends not to be a limiting factor for DGS feed mixes.

Second, the limiting factor is energy content of the feed. Calculating the energy content of feed is complicated because different animals are able to metabolize different components of the feed. Accounting for these differences, only about one third of the metabolizable energy in corn is left over in wet or dry DGS.

So what does this mean? If more corn goes to ethanol production, fewer calories will be available to feed animals, creating a gap. The most likely way that this gap will be filled will be for corn exports to go down, some land currently in soy production to shift to corn, and some land to be taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program and put into corn production. In general, this new land that is in corn production is less productive than the land that is already in production, so the average cost of producing corn goes up a little bit. This raises the price, a little bit, for all uses of corn, either as corn on the cob or as animal feed.

How large this effect becomes depends on how much corn is used for ethanol production (plus other changes in how it is used).



1) Erikson, GE, Klopfenstein TJ, Adams DC, Rasby RJ. 2006. Utilization of Corn Co-products in the Beef Industry, University of Nebrasks Lincoln

2) Garcia AD. 2005. Preservation and Feeding of Wet Distillers Grains to Dairy Cattle. Presented at 66th Minnesota Nutrition Conference and Technical Symposium, St Paul, MN

3) Kononoff PJ, Janicek B. 2006. Corn Processing Co-products Manual. A REVIEW OF CURRENT RESEARCH ON DISTILLERS GRAINS AND CORN GLUTEN: FEEDING DISTILLERS GRAINS TO DAIRY CATTLE, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

4) Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. 2005. Implications of Increased Ethanol Production for U.S. Agriculture. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri.


huberman: Ruminating on ethanol

I found this exchange of views to be very interesting. I don't know enough about the issues involved in ethanol production to be able to reach a conclusion on my own. I come away from the exchange of views feeling that each side has good points to make.

But aren't we missing the bigger picture here? Although ethanol has many advantages as a fuel, burning it nevertheless generates CO2. Wouldn't it be better if our midwestern farmers who are currently producing corn for ethanol would instead use some of their land to support wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, thus producing energy completely free of CO2? I hope these farmers will continue using the rest of their land to produce corn, which is one of my favorite foods.

PJD: Ruminating on ethanol

A few clarifications are necessary based on the last comment.

1. Biomass fuel like ethanol produced no net increase in atmospheric CO2, because, unlike fossil sources of CO2, the CO2 resulting from burning it exactly balances the CO2 taken back into the fuel crop.

2. The claims that ethanol is a net energy loser have been debunked for some time. While fossil fuels may be used for ethanol currently, there is no reason that the distillation cannot be fueled by ethanol. There is plenty of good research available via any search engine.

3. Wind is a fine source of clean electricity generation, and a lot of transportation needs can be electrified (I use an electric motor scooter for my fair-weather commuting and errands). But liquid hydrocarbon fuels will remain the only practical alternative for a large part of rural and intercity transportation and agricultural purposes in the forseeable future.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.