A DRACONIAN CHOICE: FOOD OR FUEL

The much touted explosion in the biofuels industry has the agricultural community and consumers up in arms and wondering which way to go – food or fuel. The question is critical in today’s world of growing food shortages and high energy prices.

The recently exploding industry of biofuels – in particular those made with grain – is forcing a choice of whether grain should be diverted to fuel production or kept in its most widely-accepted role of food production. To understand the dynamics of what is happening, we must first understand biofuels and the burgeoning biofuels industry.

WHAT ARE BIOFUELS?

Biofuels can be broadly defined as solid, liquid, or gas fuel consisting of, or derived from recently dead biological material, most commonly plants. They are derived from existing materials which have not had the opportunity to degrade. On the other hand, fossil fuels are derived from long dead biological material. Fossil fuels are derived from materials that have been subjected to the enormous forces and pressures of the earth over hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Whether recently dead or long dead, both forms are capable of producing energy for consumption.

WHY THE DRACONIAN CHOICE?

Biofuels are limited primarily to providing an alternative form of energy for automotive transport. Since 70% of our oil consumption goes toward producing gasoline to power vehicles, exchanging biofuels for fossil fuels or using some combination of ethanol and gasoline seems logically to make sense. But using biofuels to produce an alternative to gasoline requires that grains normally used in generating either food stuffs or animal feed must be diverted to the business of creating the biofuel, ethanol.

Corn is the primary feedstock for ethanol production. About 18 percent of the nation’s corn crop went into ethanol in 2006—some 2.15 billion bushels. Ethanol can also be made from other grains such as sorghum as well as from “biomass” sources such as corn cobs, cornstalks, wheat straw, rice straw, switchgrass, vegetable and forestry waste and other organic matter. But those sources are much less likely to be used for ethanol production than corn.

Photo Credit: Case IH website – http://www.caseih.com

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In 2007 year, over 30% of America’s corn harvest was diverted from food to ethanol production, and, ethanol distilleries now running or in the works will pull an estimated 139 million tons of corn from the 2008 corn harvest, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Some estimates put the total amount diverted in 2008 at almost 50% of the corn harvest.

The following chart shows U.S. corn production and use for fuel ethanol for a 26-year time period.

U.S. Corn Production and Use for Fuel Ethanol, 1980-2006,
with Projection to 2008
Year
Production
Use for Fuel Ethanol
Share of Corn Harvest Used for Ethanol
Million Metric Tons
Percent
1980
169
1
0.5
1981
206
2
1.1
1982
209
4
1.7
1983
106
4
3.8
1984
195
6
3.0
1985
225
7
3.1
1986
209
7
3.5
1987
181
7
3.9
1988
125
7
5.8
1989
191
8
4.3
1990
202
9
4.4
1991
190
10
5.3
1992
241
11
4.5
1993
161
12
7.2
1994
255
14
5.3
1995
188
10
5.3
1996
235
11
4.6
1997
234
12
5.2
1998
248
13
5.4
1999
240
14
6.0
2000
252
16
6.3
2001
241
18
7.4
2002
228
25
11.1
2003
256
30
11.6
2004
300
34
11.2
2005
282
41
14.4
2006
273
55
20.0
2008 (proj.)
287
139
48.5
Source: Compiled by Earth Policy Institute with corn production from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply & Distribution, electronic database, www.fas.usda.gov, updated 13 December 2006; and projection from USDA, Office of the Chief Economist, World Agricultural Outlook Board, USDA Agricultural Baseline Projections to 2015 (Washington, DC: February 2006), p. 35; corn use for fuel ethanol from USDA, Feed Grains Database, electronic database, www.ers.usda.gov/db/feedgrains, updated 13 December 2006; and projection by Earth Policy Institute.

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U.S. government data recently showed there is sufficient corn for the United States to supply itself with food and ethanol through next year, 2009, but the outlook hinges on cuts in exports and less of the grain being used as feed. It is also hugely dependent on good weather in America’s corn country, always a risky bet.

Since I am a vegetarian, I have to acknowledge that the diversion of corn from livestock feed to that of fuel production will not impact me to the extent it will those who incorporate meat as a major part of their diets. Feeding out cattle and hogs takes energy in the form of corn, and, with corn now increasingly being absorbed by the exploding ethanol industry, many Americans will be forced to choose between food or fuel – a truly Draconian choice for which most Americans are ill prepared.

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About Charlotte A. Weybright

I own a home in the historical West Central Neighborhood of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I have four grown sons and nine grandchildren - four grandsons and five granddaughters. I love to work on my home, and I enjoy crafts of all types. But, most of all, I enjoy being involved in political and community issues.
This entry was posted in Agriculture and Food Production, Biofuels, Environment, Farming, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A DRACONIAN CHOICE: FOOD OR FUEL

  1. ice-ironman says:

    For peats sake couldnt you at least put a IH combine in the picture?

  2. Hey – be nice. I know where you live. 🙂

    I found a picture, so I changed it.

  3. ice-ironman says:

    Ps, there is no choice to be made– its a bad idea. Look at the figures you posted– half of the crop is going into ethanol this year and gas is at all time highs. This proves the fact that ethanol isnt an answer and to boot we will be paying 3x food prices if we are not carefull. Go Nuclear, Go Anware, Go fishing for oil. We can drill our way out of this. We cant tax our way out as Obama wants to do.

  4. I meant the choice is being forced on consumers by shoving the ethanol industry down our throats. Without any constraints and the continued ethanol boom, consumers will be the ones forced to pay the price.

    That is why I published the tables. We have an interconnected system, and most people don’t realize the impact that ethanol production has on other parts of our economy.

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