August 26, 2004
by Dennis T. Avery
John Kerry wants to double our ethanol production to 5 billion gallons per year. So do President Bush and most of the U.S. Congress. Especially in a presidential election year.
Ethanol makes farmers feel all warm and fuzzy, and farmers will vote for presidential and Senate candidates in closely contested Midwest states this fall. Farm votes could actually swing the White House and the Senate.
Even eco-activists see ethanol as better for the planet. It doesn't burn significantly cleaner, but it's "renewable."
There's only one problem. Corn takes land. Land good enough to farm is the scarcest resource on the planet. To convert to ethanol, we would have to clear most of America's forests and/or drain our wetland and still have more erosion-prone land used for corn.
An acre of corn produces about 300 gallons of ethanol per year. U.S. vehicles burn about 300 billion gallons of gasoline per year. Cars can burn an 85 percent ethanol blend without engine damage, but we'd need to plant 850 million acres of corn. The United States doesn't have that much cropland. U.S. farmers now plant only 330 million acres in crops in total, and only 73 million acres of corn.
Additional ethanol plants already being built will demand 6 million to 10 million more acres of corn by 2008. Which state's wildlife habitat will we clear to supply them?
Don't forget that better emissions technology already has cut air pollution per car by nearly 95 percent, and hybrid gas-electric vehicles promise to give us 40 percent more miles per gallon burned.
Remember, too, that American farmers last year harvested the world's largest-ever corn crop - and it wasn't enough to meet the global demand for livestock feed. Grain prices went so high that ethanol plants couldn't bid for corn. World grain stocks went down. Rainforest was cleared for farming in the tropics.
The most "promising" corn production possibility would be to drain lots of wetland. These areas would produce high yields of corn. But they would no longer produce lots of frogs, fish, birds and dragonflies.
More important, the world is heading for three times as much feed demand in 2050. The human population will grow by perhaps 1.5 billion before it tops out. China's meat demand is soaring, India's milk demand is soaring and neither of those densely populated countries has any additional cropland available.
Brazil has a lot of pasture and brushland that could be planted with corn, supplying world food and feed demand while America turns its corn into ethanol. But that would give Brazil the profitable part of the corn market. The United States and its taxpayers would spend tens of billons of tax dollars, and the National Research Council says our air wouldn't be any cleaner. Plus, we still would need fossil fuels for our power plants.
Nor would U.S. farmers be richer; they'd still be selling the same amount of corn.
If we decide we must have an alcohol fuel anyway, we could import it from Brazil's sugar cane fields at half the cost, both economically and environmentally. In fact, cane sugar is the most efficient source of biofuel on the planet. Importing ethanol would help Brazil's economy, but likely increase pump prices significantly for U.S. motorists.
Ethanol is an election-year standby. But it is fool's gold that will tarnish the environment and slip money from the pockets of taxpayers, motorists and even farmers.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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