Only three years ago there was such a surplus of corn in the Midwest that it became a joke. Someone pasted the image of a skier into a photo of a mountainous pile of the stuff, labeled it “ Ski Iowa,” and e-mailed it around the Internet to hand everyone a laugh–except the farmers, of course. At the time, turning all that unwanted corn into ethanol to replace gasoline seemed like a great idea.
But that was then. Today, corn ethanol has become the bad-boy alternative to petroleum, criticized for driving up food prices, destroying rain forests and worsening climate change. For good measure, the criticism is usually leveled at biofuels in general, even though the other category of biofuel–biodiesel–is not made from corn and has a much more beneficial climate-improving profile. For some environmentalists, the only acceptable green energy options are wind, solar and geothermal power. Former Vice President Al Gore recently challenged America to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels in ten years by shifting electricity production to those three ideal options. Along the way, he suggested assisting auto makers to build plug-in cars and phase out gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles.
However, even if this utopia can be achieved in a decade–and I fervently hope that it can–Americans are stuck with cars they wish they could plug in but can’t. America and the world will need liquid fuels for a long time to come, and biofuels, including some corn ethanol made at the most efficient distilleries, offer a far better option than continued use of fossil fuels.
Biofuel critics, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America, often frame the problem as a choice between feeding people and feeding SUVs; they blame rising food prices on diverting food crops to fuel production. The trade group has mounted a public relations campaign to try to roll back high Congressional mandates for increasing use of ethanol. While concern about rising food prices is certainly justified, for grocery manufacturers the argument is also self-serving. Food manufacturers make their profits not on raw vegetables or commodities like cooking oil but on processed foods, and they want to direct public anger about food price inflation away from themselves. Packaging, processing, advertising, transportation and profits account for most of the price of processed foods, and the surging price of oil figures heavily in that mix. The cost of corn, even as the major ingredient in a food like corn flakes, accounts for a tiny fraction of the final price.
But it’s false to frame the biofuel debate as a choice between people or SUVs. While there are daily references in the media to the diversion of corn to fuel-making, there’s hardly ever a mention of the fact that feeding our livestock uses 50 percent to 60 percent of the American corn crop. Here are the calculations used by the US Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service for how much corn animals must be fed to produce a pound of meat for retail sale: seven pounds of corn equals one pound of beef; six-and-a-half pounds of corn equals one pound of pork; two and six-tenths pounds of corn equals one pound of chicken. (Meat industry estimates are lower but generally refer to the amount of corn necessary to make the live animal gain a pound, not the amount necessary to get a pound of food in the meat case.) Corn is a dietary staple in parts of the world like Mexico, but not here in the United States, where the answer to “What’s for dinner?” is supposed to be “beef.” Talk about feeding SUVs or people is deceptive, since it masks the intermediate step of feeding animals a whole lot of corn to get one steak dinner.