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Corn Rush -- 'Ethanol Fever' Needs a Reality Check

Editor's Note: Political, corporate and media support of corn ethanol as an alternative fuel can't hide serious problems with this energy source, the writer says. New America Media contributor Christopher D. Cook is the author of "Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis" (New Press). He has written for Harper's, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. For more information, visit:

SAN FRANCISCO--America has a bad case of ethanol fever. Amid soaring oil prices and concerns over global warming and national security, corn ethanol has been anointed as the magic bullet for America's energy troubles. Fueled by bipartisan support and bushels of good press, U.S. agriculture is plowing unprecedented harvests of maize into fuel. Ethanol firms are going public, corn futures are selling like hot cakes, and on May 30, Renewable Fuels Association president Bob Dineen rang the New York Stock Exchange's opening bell.

At first glance, corn ethanol's appeal is compelling. It's a homegrown energy source that reduces fossil fuel consumption. From Wall Street to Main Street, the ethanol boom has sparked new markets, padding some farmers' wallets (and, more considerably, those of industry leader Archer Daniels Midland). Roughly 18 percent of America's corn goes to fuel today -- up from just 8 percent in 2000 -- making ethanol the second-leading use of corn, after livestock feed. It's cheaper and cleaner than petroleum gasoline, so demand and production are skyrocketing.

But despite this allure, ethanol is not a free ticket out of our oil addiction. While production has ballooned to 4 billion gallons a year -- slated by U.S. energy law to reach at least 7.5 billion by 2012 -- there are critical, unresolved questions about ethanol's benefits and costs. In fact, this headlong Corn Rush risks considerable collateral damage to the environment, American farmland and food production -- and to all who drive and eat.

Most pressing are the environmental and energy-draining impacts of large-scale ethanol production. The industrial farming deployed to meet the growing demand for corn relies on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, ironically adding to fossil fuel consumption. Corn is also a gas-guzzler: It takes six gallons of diesel, nearly five gallons of liquid petroleum gas, and more than 380 gallons of natural gas to farm a single acre of corn, according to USDA data. Although technological efficiency is improving, ethanol processing plants gobble up vast quantities of water, electric power, and, at some facilities, coal. All told, there is considerable debate among researchers about whether ethanol uses up as much or more energy than it saves: Estimates vary widely, from a 29 percent net energy loss to a 67 percent gain.

Even if one concedes that corn biofuel is an energy winner, there are important environmental and sustainability impacts to consider before taking the ethanol plunge. As production becomes increasingly industrialized, pressures to squeeze more corn from already depleted Midwest soils are intensifying -- requiring more petroleum and chemicals. Some 98 percent of corn farms use chemical herbicides, applying more than 200 million pounds annually. More than 65 million pounds of toxic Atrazine spray, a likely carcinogen whose residues are found in rivers and streams across America, are dumped on corn crops each year.

The inherent tensions between farming for energy and farming for food also must be factored into the ethanol equation. While ethanol narrowly trims greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on foreign (not to mention domestic) oil, coaxing fuel from America's already-taxed farmlands is neither a sufficient nor sustainable means of meeting currently bloated energy demands. There is simply not enough farmland to supply America's fuel, and efforts to milk the land of every possible drop could impoverish future food production. As more corn and farmland goes to fuel production, experts like Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute have raised important concerns that diminished food grain supplies could hurt low-income consumers. According to Brown, one person could be fed for an entire year on the amount of grain used to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol.

Furthermore, more corn for fuel means less farmland for fresh local food, which could reduce fossil-fuel consuming shipments that currently average roughly 1,800 miles per item found in our grocery stores. Experts such as Cornell University's David Pimentel have found that U.S. farms already gobble up some 400 gallons of fossil fuels each year just to feed every American. Expanding corn ethanol will, for any of its benefits, only increase agriculture's petrochemical footprint.

We need an energy policy and agriculture that guzzle less, not more. Corn ethanol could be one small ingredient, along with a healthy mix of cellulosic biofuels that turn plant residues into clean energy. But proven renewable sources such as wind and solar energy offer promising returns with fewer ecological side effects, and ought to be key ingredients in our future energy supply.

Ultimately, with well-documented global warming trends breathing down our collective necks, we cannot simply replace oil-powered cars with the lesser evil of those run by corn fuel. Far greater changes are needed in production and consumption if we want sustainable energy and agriculture in our future.