How Big Corn Is Killing the Earth

Production of corn-based ethanol, touted as a 'cleaner and greener' energy source, is destroying prairie lands and cutting into our food supply.

Corn-Based Ethanol, touted as a 'Greener' Energy Source, is Cutting into our Food Supply

(Photo: Way Tru/Flickr)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

When George W. Bush put out the challenge in his 2007 State of the Union address to vastly increase production of alternative forms of energy over the next decade—by more than five times—the United States corn industry was licking its lips.

Experts said at the time that ethanol, a fuel derived mostly from corn, would be the only alternative fuel America could produce domestically at a scale that could meet Bush’s mandate. And produce they did, more than doubling U.S. production of ethanol from 6.5 billion gallons in 2007 to nearly 14 billion gallons in 2011. But rather than helping the environment by encouraging “cleaner, greener” ethanol, the production of the alternative fuel may be damaging the earth even more than before.

This week a 4,000-word report by the Associated Press, provocatively titled “The secret, dirty cost of Obama’s green power push,” lays out in detail a process that has “wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies.” And with farmers replanting wheat, cotton, barley, and oat fields with corn to meet Bush’s requirement that oil companies add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline every year, the policy is forcing growers to make a difficult choice: food or fuel.

Today, the Obama administration announced that it wants to reduce the amount of ethanol used in American gasoline, “acknowledging the biofuel law championed by both parties in 2008 is now working as well as expected,” according to AP. It’s a change oil companies have been fighting for.

As of 2012, about 35 percent of the U.S. corn supply was being used to make ethanol rather than food. This comes as no surprise to environmental activists such as Bill McKibben, whose group, 350.org, is fighting climate change through opposition to fossil fuels. But corn-based ethanol, he says, is not the answer to our climate crisis.

“Ethanol was always a way to help the corn industry, not the environment,” McKibben said. “The energy balances have always been terrible.”

The AP report outlines an ethanol production process that incentivized farmers to begin farming previously protected wetlands and prairie lands, “releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.” Scientists’ predictions from early in the ethanol boom, as McKibben echoed, have proved true: The process itself, from the tractors tending the corn fields to transporting the fuel to market, may use more energy than the ethanol puts out. President Obama’s enforcement and expansion of Bush’s ethanol mandate, experts say, stifle other, perhaps better, sources of alternative energy.

“You’re locking in corn ethanol,” Daniel Kammen, an energy specialist and codirector of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment at U.C. Berkeley, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “This is how not to make policy.”

Sugar, for instance, can produce ethanol. In fact, more than half the world’s ethanol is produced with sugar by-products, a process that is cheaper and less damaging to the environment than corn ethanol. During the historic drought of 2012 here in the United States, farmers saw firsthand how harmful a lack of diversification in alternative fuel production could be. As we reported then, livestock and poultry producers petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to waive the ethanol requirement for gasoline because of the dramatic increase in feed prices. The EPA declined to waive the requirement, and the U.S. imported millions of gallons of sugar-based ethanol from Brazil to meet the gasoline requirement—again choosing fuel over food.

In parts of the world where subsistence farming is a way of life, turning food-producing land to biofuel production can have even more dramatic consequences. That was the case in the District of Kisarawe, Tanzania, an area where more than 80 percent of residences are involved with agriculture. According to a 2012 report from the Oakland Institute, the British company Sun Biofuels leased 8,211 hectares to grow the plant jatropha as an energy crop. When the company went bankrupt two years later, residents were left in the lurch.

“Locals have lost their farmland and their supply of fresh water as well as access to essential natural resources,” the report reads, “while the durable employment and creation of infrastructure that were expected with this investment did not materialize.”

In the Midwest, it may be a plant that has grown on the Plains for thousands of years that produces a more energy- and cost-efficient ethanol than corn. Working with researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture, farmers in Nebraska and the Dakotas found that switchgrass, which is often found growing wild on the edges of cultivated fields, produces 540 percent more energy than it takes to grow the native perennial.

Then why do we continue to turn our food (i.e., corn) into fuel with such severe environmental side effects?

Because of the ethanol and corn lobbies, of course—and the senators and department secretaries that listen to them. Given the AP’s damning report, however (of which the ethanol lobby and corn farmers have demanded a retraction), maybe officials will begin to look for methods of fuel production that help the earth rather than harm it.

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