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The Real Cost of Ethanol

For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

Across the farmlands of America, there are acres upon acres of corn. Corn planted over roads that used to subdivide cropland. Corn planted on ground once considered too wet for cultivation. Corn planted on ground typically too dry to produce dependable yields but are profitable today because of innovations in drought-tolerant seeds developed by companies such as DuPont Pioneer.

There's now corn planted on 1.3 million acres that until recently was reserved for conservation - an area larger than all of Delaware. Last year, American farmers planted 95 million acres of corn, 10 million acres more than in 2008.

Fourteen percent of Delaware's total land base, 180,000 acres, was last year planted in corn.

This phenomenon is being driven by increased demand for corn-based ethanol, which now consumes more than 40-percent of corn grown nationwide. Researchers at South Dakota State University say it has spawned the most important change in land use in decades.

As envisioned by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act - championed and signed into law by President George W. Bush and embraced by candidate and now President Barack Obama - ethanol was supposed to lower gas prices for consumers, reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and improve the environment by helping reduce levels of carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas - in the atmosphere.

The ethanol industry, and its strong lobbying arm in Washington, say most of those goals have been achieved.

But the growth of ethanol, an alcohol-based additive that makes up 10-percent of each gallon of gas, has had unintended consequences:

• We pay more for foods like bread, snacks and chicken. Between 2007 and 2008, ethanol drove a 10 to 15 percent increase in food prices, according to a Congressional Budget Office report - partly because corn once used for livestock feed is now used to make fuel.

• Our vehicles get fewer miles per gallon of gasoline now that ethanol is included, and we're paying more for that fuel - about 13 cents per gallon because of the lost efficiency.

• Boat engines and lawn care equipment go kaput from engines that weren't designed for fuels that include alcohol, a natural byproduct of the sugars and starches in corn.

• Fiberglass marine fuel tanks in older vessels can't stand up to the alcohol-based fuel additive, causing dangerous leaks.

• Iconic species like monarch butterflies, native bees, pheasants and other grassland birds are declining from lost habitat as more land is converted to corn production.

• Corn planted in marginal habitats threatens one of the most altered ecosystems in the world - the temperate grasslands of the Great Plains, which naturally absorb carbon from the atmosphere.  


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