Notes from Iowa: The Downside to Biofuels

April 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Biofuels, Blog, Economy, Energy, Front Page, Notes from Iowa, Poverty, Slideshow

In 2010, 58% of Iowa's corn crop was used to make ethanol. Photo: Joe Hennager

The following is an excerpt from a letter to the editor published in the Fairfield (Iowa) Daily Register, April 14, 2011. The letter writer is Francis Thicke, Ph.D., an expert in soil science and an organic dairy farmer who, along with his wife, Susan, won the prestigious Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture in 2009. Thicke waged a popular — but ultimately unsuccessful — grassroots campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in 2010. The issues he raised have galvanized proponents of sustainable agriculture across the nation. We’re pleased to have Dr. Thicke’s permission to reprint his letter. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Fully 58 percent of Iowa’s 2010 corn crop was used to make ethanol. So, it is not just “surplus” corn that is going into ethanol, as is claimed by the ethanol industry. Even the livestock industry does not believe the ethanol industry’s claim that this much corn going for ethanol does not affect prices. That is why the livestock commodity groups for hogs, cattle and poultry are all lobbying against ethanol subsidies in Washington, D.C.

A recent Iowa State University analysis indicated that ethanol subsidies are no longer needed to keep the ethanol industry profitable. It’s time to end the $0.45 per gallon ethanol subsidy, which cost taxpayers nearly $6 billion in 2010. The real cost per gallon of that subsidy is actually much higher: If you account for the fact that ethanol contains just two-thirds the energy of gasoline, and that two-thirds of ethanol’s energy consists of embedded fossil-fuel energy that was required to grow the corn and make the ethanol, the real cost of the $0.45 per gallon ethanol subsidy comes to over $2 per gallon of gasoline net energy equivalence. That is $2 per gallon that we taxpayers pay for ethanol even before we buy it at the gas pump.

Crops worldwide — canola, cassava, palm oil, corn, soybeans, sugarcane and others — are increasingly being used to make biofuels. That might not make a lot of difference in the price you pay for corn flakes, but it does make a big difference to the half of the world’s population that lives on just $2 per day or less. They spend about 80 percent of their income on food, and the worldwide shift from food to biofuel crops causes them hardship, or worse. When the price of corn doubles in the U.S., it causes a ripple effect that increases food grain prices worldwide and pushes more people into starvation.

Our huge investment in ethanol wouldn’t seem so bad if we used that ethanol efficiently. But we are using it in passenger vehicles that average just 20.4 mpg (compared to 45 to 50 mpg in Europe and Japan). It would take only about 1 mpg increase in our passenger vehicle mileage to save the equivalent amount of energy we get from all the ethanol we produce in the U.S.

Aside from the disastrous economic investment the ethanol industry has been, we should consider the environmental problems ethanol brings with it. For example, for every gallon of ethanol made from corn, two gallons of soil are lost to erosion. Clearly, this is not a sustainable system. Corn production in Iowa averages 5.7 tons/acre of soil eroded each year, but the soil naturally regenerates at an average rate of just 0.5 tons/acre per year.

Nutrient loading to water resources from corn production is another problem. According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, corn production is a major contributor of nutrients that cause the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which grows to about the size of New Jersey every summer.

It is important that we look critically at the talking points of the biofuels industry, and not let them play us for biofools.

Francis Thicke, Fairfield, Iowa

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future


4 Responses to “Notes from Iowa: The Downside to Biofuels”

  1. dipak on April 17th, 2011 2:32 am

    what comes to my mind is Ketosis, a process our body takes up ..when it spends more energy to produce much less energy from non carbohydrate sources.
    ..and then what is “rat race”..when rats run and run spending much more energy to reach out to a piece of cheese that would give them rats much less energy..
    why rats we are all into it.

  2. Larry Farmer on April 18th, 2011 8:06 am

    While I agree with Dr. Thicke that corn is a poor choice for feedstock, condemning all ethanol does not follow. Using a readily available commodity to start the transition to biofuels was an obvious first step. Now that biofuels are gaining some traction, it is important to shape that industry into a sustainable model. Rather than eliminating the subsidy, it would be better to use more wisely. Substituting other feedstocks for corn is in a bit of a catch-22: farmers are unwilling to switch to other crops without a sure market and ethanol producers are unwilling to modify plants without a sure supply.

    Dr. Thicke should also be aware that corn is not wholly consumed in the production of ethanol; only the starch is consumed. The proteins and other nutrients remain and are valuable for animal feed. Given the same corn inputs, dairy cows fed the “remains” of the corn after ethanol processing producing 17% *more* milk. So, the feed value of the corn was enhanced *and* ethanol was extracted. In that scenario, the energy inputs of growing the corn are really not a factor; we have merely included some additional processing the crop.

    The transition from our industrial production-consumption-waste economy to a sustainable economy is very complex and will take some time. We are also bound to make mistakes along the way. However, rather than sit on the sidelines, wringing our hands, we need to take action to propel us toward that sustainable economy. It will be imperfect for sure but any step in that direction is progress. Moving our economy away from fossil fuels is an excellent first step. Is it perfect? No. Now we need to improve process. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

  3. Francis Thicke on May 12th, 2011 9:49 am

    Larry, I would agree that the initial impetus behind ethanol was good. The idea was that ethanol production would be owned by farmers and would provide added value for farmers. However, the ethanol industry is being taken over by oil refinery and other multinational companies and their lobbyists. And, the ethanol industry has become grossly overbuilt and is using too much of the corn crop, which is why livestock farmers are lobbying to end ethanol subsidies.

    Unfortunately, the ethanol industry does not seem to be interested in transitioning to a more sustainable model — the next big push seems to be to remove the corn stover from fields for ethanol, which will make it even less sustainable. Moreover, hauling large volumes of bulky biomass to central processing will certainly prove to be a boondoggle.

    You are right that the by-product of making ethanol from corn — distillers grain — can be used as livestock feed. However, it is misleading to say that making ethanol from corn makes the corn a better feed. It makes it a different feed — the corn loses its starch, concentrating its protein, and reducing its volume by two thirds. In your dairy feed example, when distillers grain is fed to dairy cows, another source of energy must also be provided.

    I would like to see the public research and development now being devoted to ethanol be refocused on a model that is sustainable (uses perennial crops), that is farm-scale and farmer-owned, and produces fuel that can be used on the farm. The model of pyrolysis holds great promise to do just that. I go into more detail on pyrolysis here:

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