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Commentary: Very, Very Big Corn

US - President Bush made a big push for alternative fuels in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, calling on Americans to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% over 10 years.
calendar icon 30 January 2007
clock icon 1 minute read

And as soon as the sun rose on Wednesday, he set out to tour a DuPont facility in Delaware to tout the virtues of "cellulosic ethanol" and propose $2 billion in loans to promote the stuff. For a man who famously hasn't taken a drink for 20 years, that's a considerable intake of alcohol.

A bit of sobriety would go a long way in discussing this moonshine of the energy world, however. Cellulosic ethanol -- which is derived from plants like switchgrass -- will require a big technological breakthrough to have any impact on the fuel supply. That leaves corn- and sugar-based ethanol, which have been around long enough to understand their significant limitations. What we have here is a classic political stampede rooted more in hope and self-interest than science or logic.

Ostensibly, the great virtue of ethanol is that it represents a "sustainable," environmentally friendly source of energy -- a source that is literally homegrown rather than imported from such unstable places as Nigeria or Iran.

That's one reason why, as Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren note in the Milken Institute Review, federal and state subsidies for ethanol ran to about $6 billion last year, equivalent to roughly half its wholesale market price. Ethanol gets a 51-cent a gallon domestic subsidy, and there's another 54-cent a gallon tariff applied at the border against imported ethanol. Without those subsidies, hardly anyone would make the stuff, much less buy it -- despite recent high oil prices.

That's also why the percentage of the U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol has risen to 20% from 3% in just five years, or about 8.6 million acres of farmland. Reaching the President's target of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017 would, at present corn yields, require the entire U.S. corn harvest.

No wonder, then, that the price of corn rose nearly 80% in 2006 alone. Corn growers and their Congressmen love this, and naturally they are planting as much as they can. Look for a cornfield in your neighborhood soon. Yet for those of us who like our corn flakes in the morning, the higher price isn't such good news. It's even worse for cattle, poultry and hog farmers trying to adjust to suddenly exorbitant prices for feed corn -- to pick just one industry example. The price of corn is making America's meat-packing industries, which are major exporters, less competitive.

In Mexico, the price of corn tortillas -- the dietary staple of the country's poorest -- has risen by about 30% in recent months, leading to widespread protests and price controls. In China, the government has put a halt to ethanol-plant construction for the threat it poses to the country's food security. Thus is a Beltway fad translated into Third World woes.

As for the environmental impact, well, where do we begin? As an oxygenate, ethanol increases the level of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere and thus causes smog. The scientific literature is also divided about whether the energy inputs required to produce ethanol actually exceed its energy output. It takes fertilizer to grow the corn, and fuel to ship and process it, and so forth. Even the most optimistic estimate says ethanol's net energy output is a marginal improvement of only 1.3 to one. For purposes of comparison, energy outputs from gasoline exceed inputs by an estimated 10 to one.

Source: Truth About Trade & Technology