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.