Ethanol – Unintended Consequences

Sunday, November 29, 2009

cornpumpSince the production of ethanol made from corn and other foodstocks became a national priority, the demand for the fuel has been creating a slow-motion disaster of epic proportions. It has produced world-wide hunger and millions of acres of deforestation, while indirectly causing massive increases in greenhouse emissions. The consequences down the line are world-wide political instability and greatly accelerated climate change. It’s a problem that could have been avoided by a little foresight and a lot less pressure from agribusiness; the disastrous consequences will require a complete and almost immediate turnabout.

Millions of third-world people are going hungrier than they did before ethanol became a mandated fuel. They are hungry because much of the supply of corn and soybeans, the principal feedstocks used to make ethanol, has been diverted from making food to making fuel. As the demand to buy feedstocks to make ethanol has been added to the demand for feedstocks to make food, prices for both crops have more than doubled in the last five years. The rise in grain prices has been steep, and there have already been food riots – mostly in third-world countries like Indonesia and West Africa, but as close as Mexico. If the first world doesn’t stop encouraging the use of feedstocks to make ethanol, we won’t just see riots: we’ll see governments fall and world-wide destabilization.

The demand for corn and for all grains is rising anyway, both because the world’s population is increasing and, as that population becomes richer, it consumes more meat. It takes 16 pounds of grain on average to produce a pound of four-legged meat, so there is less grain available to eat. But nothing consumes grain like biofuel: it takes 26 pounds of shelled corn to make a gallon of ethanol. At about 500 calories a pound, the corn it takes to fill one 25-gallon SUV-sized tank will feed a grown person for half a year. There are over a billion urban poor for whom that missing grain is a personal loss. For them, there is no slack in the money they have for food: when prices go up, they go hungry.

A world of rising population coupled with an increase in meat-eating is a storm surge that will be hard to handle. But the massive diversion of grains to make automobile fuel is threatening to create a tsunami.

There are even more unintended consequences to food-based ethanol: The demand for land to grow the suddenly pricier crops is leading to widespread deforestation – mostly by burning. Prices for soybeans and corn are so high, farmers around the world have razed millions of square miles of forest land to make way for planting these crops. Considering that that the carbon released by deforestation makes up 20 per cent of the earth’s annual total, anything that speeds up the destruction of forests is a major negative factor. But the changes in the use of land created by the deforestation that is due to ethanol production promises to be worse: An article in the February 2009 issue of Science Magazine said that, “Over a 30-year period, counting land-use change, GHG emissions from corn ethanol nearly double those from gasoline for each km driven.” The drive to produce ethanol isn’t reducing the greenhouse gases billowing into our atmosphere; it’s vastly increasing them.

While the Brazilian rain forest has been giving way to ranches for many decades, the transfer of forest to pastureland wasn’t nearly as damaging as deforestation for cropland. Burning and clearing the forest for either purpose causes the same amount of carbon emissions, but a study of deforestation in the Amazon basin, done in 2006 by researchers from the University of Maryland, indicated that “areas converted from tropical forest to cropland, including soybean, result in warmer, drier conditions. But the conversion of forest into pasture – land with grasses – results in a cooling effect.” With the price of soybeans rising because of ethanol demand, 70 per cent of the forest burned in Brazil for the last five years has gone up in flames to grow them.

We could be using tons of waste that we are currently stuffing into our landfills to make fuels that don’t involve these unintended consequences, but we are only beginning to look at them as a possibility. These are billions of pounds of forestry and agricultural biomass as well as tons of low-grade paper and construction materials that can be used for this purpose. To accomplish this, we have to develop processes that transform these wastes into fuel without using more energy than the energy of the fuel produced. A number of companies have done promising research that shows they can process biomass by using other methods, like microbes and enzymes, to break down the wastes and turn them into fuel.

But now, the US Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, who were so speedy to support the creation of ethanol plants with loan guarantees and other subsidies, seem to have put on the brakes where cellulosic ethanol is concerned. Even large companies like British Petroleum and General Motors, who have already completed demonstration projects for some of the new methods that use waste, are finding it hard to get backing from the government. Whether this foot-dragging is caused by pressure from agribusiness, which wants to keep the emphasis on foodstocks, or from the oil industry, who doesn’t want an ethanol replacement, or by just plain bureaucratic foot dragging, isn’t clear.

What is clear is that we’ve got to change course, or we’ll be wishing we had.

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