Ethanol debate asks: Is corn food or fuel?

Elizabeth Polsdofer

Regardless of race, sexual orientation, origin or political affiliation, there is one thing students and faculty at Iowa State can agree on: The state of Iowa has corn — and lots of it. In addition to Iowa being known as the Hawkeye State, after the Sauk Indian Black Hawk, the state of Iowa is also known widely as the “Corn State” for its leadership in corn production.

The corn grown in Iowa goes into food productions, cattle feed and ethanol. Ethanol is a fuel that is produced from corn and other crops and has been implemented into the American gasoline industry. The most a typical car can fuel on is a mere 10 percent ethanol, with ethanol cars having to be built to specifically run on 100 percent ethanol.

Advent of a new fuel seems wonderful, especially with the rising gas prices in the U.S., but what most Iowans do not realize is that in some parts of the U.S., the use of ethanol as a fuel source is controversial. Specifically, the state of California outright refuses to use corn-based ethanol, with outspoken critics blaming ethanol for the deforestation of the rain forest and world hunger.

In his book “Why Are We Producing Biofuels?,” Robert Brown, director of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute and professor of chemical and biological engineering, shows that the level of exports to less-developed countries is actually slightly increasing while the amount of corn going to livestock remains about the same.

“Why Are We Producing Boiofuels?” challenges the indirect language usage change hypothesis of Tim Searchinger, associate research scholar and lecturer of public and international affairs at Princeton University, and argues that the economics involved with corn production is not alone responsible for financial woes blamed on ethanol production.

“I can’t say that there’s a negative correlation [between corn production and deforestation], but I can say there isn’t a positive correlation,” Brown said.

The increase in corn production is used to create ethanol, so farmers in Iowa are still producing the amount of corn for livestock and less-developed countries, with a little more extra corn for ethanol than last year.

Iowa, along with six other states in the Midwest, is striking back against California citing the commerce and supremacy clauses. The clauses state that the national government has the right to regulate trade between states, which means California may have its zero tolerance to ethanol regulations overthrown.

The corn used to produce ethanol, field corn, is inedible to humans.

Field corn is used to feed livestock, and the myth is that if field corn is being used to create ethanol instead of feeding livestock, then reasonable transport of corn to less-developed countries is not viable.

Searchinger proposed in his 2008 paper “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change” that if less-developed countries were not receiving adequate corn supplies, then they would need to grow their own corn and cut down rain forest area in order to gain more land for agriculture.

The carbon released in the atmosphere because of deforestation would be so large, Searchinger argued, that the math points to the cost of ethanol production ultimately being worse for the environment than regular gasoline.

This theory, coined as indirect land usage change, claims that it is not feasible for corn to be used for ethanol, livestock and less developed countries, and therefore one of these three should go.

However, the indirect land usage change theory does not account for the growing yields of corn with farmers producing more corn each year. 

Brown argues in his new book that there not sufficient evidence to argue ethanol production is causing deforestation.

Dermot Hayes, ISU professor of finance and economics, has worked with the economics of the indirect land usage correlation in his paper, “Sensitivity of Carbon Emission Estimates from Indirect Land-Use Change.” Hayes’ models shows that taking account of other external factors, ethanol production has a much smaller impact on the environment than previously estimated, putting ethanol on the charts as a viable fuel source again.

The rising cost of feed for livestock is a sore spot for critics of the economics of ethanol. Gale Lush, the chairman of the American Corn Growers Foundation, said the feed sold to feed livestock is a special form called dried distillers’ grain that contains concentrated amounts of fat, oils and proteins. Essentially, the distillers’ grain is more beneficial to growing cattle than regular corn feed.

An argument against ethanol production is the damage to the agricultural landscape due to excessive farming. Brown said keeping more nutrients in the soil is something that needs to be considered heavily and worked on. The fear is that farming will cause all the soil to lose its nutrients and the lands that produce plenty will some day produce nothing.

“About half of the soil’s organic matter is gone,” Brown said regarding the soil before agriculture. “But that was done over a period of 150 years.”

ISU researchers are investigating the length at which to cut corn stocks so that most of the nutrients remain on the land, so farmers will not be constantly taking nutrients out of the soil with each harvest.

Brown said the soil is approaching a balance of nutrients that will probably remain constant throughout time called a “steady state.” Some steady states mean infertile land, but Brown argues Iowa will not reach infertility. A focus of the Biorenewables Research Laboratory is to find a way to restore some nutrients to the soil.

Farmers are growing a cover crop when not growing corn to also be used for livestock feed, as Lush said it is better for the soil to be growing something all the time. Often the cover crops will be planted with deep root to create more holes in the soil for water to fall through when corn is growing.

“It’s not in a farmer’s best interest to wear the soil down,” Lush said. “The land makes our living; the last thing we want is to do is destroy it.”

The rising cost of corn is cited as a contribution to world hunger, taking food off the plate of hungry mouths. Lush said many less-developed countries imported corn because the domestic corn could not compete economically with American corn. The cost of importing American corn was less than growing corn themselves, so the increase in price in corn is an opportunity for some less-developed countries to start producing more corn themselves.

Distribution of food within less-developed countries is an issue in itself, with inadequate food storage and corrupt governments in some countries. Brown estimates that at least one-third of all food is wasted because it is thrown away, infected or rotted before it could be used.

With the boom in the agricultural industry, Lush said, “We probably have more food in the world today than before ethanol.”

The farmer receives 15.8 percent of the profits for raising corn. Most of the cost of corn is due to the cost of transporting corn, which is in turn caused by high cost of energy.

The pay out for growing corn is currently at $6 per bushel, triple the amount of the steady $2 per bushel before ethanol production. When the increased cost of living is calculated into all of this, $6 per bushel in on par. For decades, farmers missed the pay raise that came with an increased cost of living, making the same $2 per bushel while other people received a raise.

Lush said the increased cost of corn is great for the economy, since the income of the farmer is coming from their crop production and not funded from the government. The ethanol industry is a way for farming to step up and not only produce alternative energy sources, but to stand on its own without government assistance.

The battle against ethanol reigns on many fronts, attacking the farmer, fuel producers and the corn itself. Misconceptions are the biggest enemy to anyone associated with ethanol production and are considered by some to be the greatest cause of protest against the use of field corn as a source for ethanol.

The Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, an ISU institution that specializes in agricultural economics, estimates that without ethanol as a fuel source, the average cost to fuel up would increase by $1 per gallon. Ethanol constitutes 25 percent of the fuel industry in the United States alone.

The lawsuit filed against the state of California will challenge the constitutionality of its low-carbon fuel standard. Evidence produced by Brown and Hayes helps show ethanol meets the regulations for low-carbon fuel standards. Brown hopes “Why Are We Producing Biofuels?” will educate the public about the misconceptions concerning ethanol as a fuel source.