larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next
by Larry

November, 2008

The Growing Case Against Corn for Ethanol

Farmers eager to sell corn at a nice profit, while there has been interest in making much of this food staple into ethanol and it is still being subsidized for that purpose by the U.S. taxpayer, have one more reason to worry that this good thing for their pocketbooks may not last. It turns out all those extra tonnages of corn production come with a marine life cost as well.

Per Henry C. Jackson, in the "Ocala Star Banner," page 3A, December 18, 2007, the production of corn reached its highest levels since World War II last year. To get the most growth per acre, American farmers tend to use huge amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizer. As a result, nitrogen rich runoff (containing over 200 million pounds of nitrogen in 2007) from the nation's mid-section Corn Belt makes its way into the Mississippi and thus, eventually, into the Gulf of Mexico where it appears to be contributing to an expansion of a lifeless underwater region previously treasured for lucrative fishing or for shrimp, oyster, and other shellfish catch activities. The dead region is thought to result from rapid growth of algae in the nitrogen-rich waters adjacent to the Mississippi's mouth. When the algae dies, it blankets the seafloor, decays, and, in the process, uses up available oxygen without which the fishing or shellfish industry life forms cannot exist.

Once the double subsidies (both for the corn and the ethanol it is turned into) are considered, along with the dollar, fuel, and direct environmental costs of producing and transporting ethanol, plus the losses to Gulf communities of reduced or eliminated fish and shellfish, it is highly questionable if the corn into ethanol program is on balance cost-effective.

Meanwhile, to the extent the added demand for corn raises its price, the cost is passed along to consumers both in the U.S. and in all other countries where corn, corn products, or corn-fed cattle and fowl are major parts of the diet. This, in turn, has contributed to inflation in our nation as well as many other areas around the globe. The higher costs for corn meal have raised the prices of beef, chicken, eggs, milk, and many other items. Populations numbering in the hundreds of millions that have been on the nutritional sustenance fringe find they cannot afford to feed themselves now that corn has also become a way of meeting our growing fuel needs.

the Mississippi River delta

Per Laura Carlsen in "Americas Program," November 6, 2007, as one example of how our interdependent world involves itself in such unintended consequences, the higher costs for corn meal have dramatically raised the price of tortillas for consumers in our southern neighbor. As a consequence, many cannot afford to provide for their families on existing incomes in Mexico and so have added incentive to illegally enter the U.S. for higher paying work here.

The extra acreage now allocated for corn for ethanol also reduces farmland for other crops, increasing food costs more generally, for with the decrease in supply and no decrease in demand, markets automatically bid up the price of the diminished food stock commodities.

Scientists are not clear on the dead zone's likely dynamics or future. Discovered in 1985, its existing area has grown considerably since and now covers a more than 8000 square-mile area. Since fish, crabs, oysters, lobsters, crayfish, and shrimp cannot live there, fishermen are forced farther and farther from their home ports to acquire profitable catches.

Meanwhile, as the southward Mississippi nitrogen flow continues, it is anticipated that the dead zone will expand further and so increase the threat to the underwater ecosystem. Inevitably that living system will be altered. But scientists do not know if it will simply be more and more impacted or will instead collapse completely. In a sense, we are conducting a grand-scale experiment using the Gulf of Mexico as our "Petri dish."

Even once their liabilities are better understood, programs put into effect in haste often take years or decades to improve or eliminate. So it may be well to start at once efforts to halt what in my opinion and others' is a misguided corn for ethanol approach. If ethanol is still deemed to be a good way to help solve our energy conundrum, there are of course other sources of the needed vegetable matter, ones that need not involve a reduction of our food supplies, greater destruction of seafloor life, or other significant deficits.

(Thanks to Evelyn for sending the "Ocala Star Banner" article which helped inform and inspire this piece.)

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next