But the biggest problem with ethanol is that it steals vast swaths of land that might be better used for growing food. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor," University of Minnesota economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer point out that filling the gas tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn — roughly enough calories to feed one person for a year.
Thanks in large part to the ethanol craze, the price of beef, poultry and pork in the United States rose more than three percent during the first five months of this year. In some parts of the country, hog farmers now find it cheaper to fatten their animals on trail mix, french fries and chocolate bars. And since America provides two-thirds of all global corn exports, the impact is being felt around the world. In Mexico, tortilla prices have jumped sixty percent, leading to food riots. In Europe, butter prices have spiked forty percent, and pork prices in China are up twenty percent. By 2025, according to Runge and Senauer, rising food prices caused by the demand for ethanol and other biofuels could cause as many as 600 million more people to go hungry worldwide.
Despite the serious drawbacks of ethanol, some technological visionaries believe that the fuel can be done right. "Corn ethanol is just a platform, the first step in a much larger transition we are undergoing from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy," says Vinod Khosla, a pioneering venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. Next-generation corn- ethanol plants, he argues, will be much more efficient and environmentally friendly. He points to a company called E3 BioFuels that just opened an ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska. The facility runs largely on biogas made from cow manure, and feeds leftover grain back to the cows, making it a "closed-loop system" — one that requires very few fossil fuels to create ethanol.
Khosla is even higher on the prospects for cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that can be made from almost any plant matter, including wood waste and perennial grasses like miscanthus and switchgrass. Like other high-tech ethanol evangelists, Khosla imagines a future in which such so-called "energy crops" are fed into giant refineries that use genetically engineered enzymes to break down the cellulose in plants and create fuel for a fraction of the cost of today's gasoline. Among other virtues, cellulosic ethanol would not cut into the global food supply (nobody eats miscanthus or switchgrass), and it could significantly cut global-warming pollution. Even more important, it could provide a gateway to a much larger biotech revolution, including synthetic microbes that could one day be engineered to gobble up carbon dioxide or other pollutants.
Unfortunately, no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants exist today. In one venture backed by Khosla, a $225 million plant in central Georgia is currently being built to make ethanol out of wood chips. Mitch Mandich, a former Apple Computer executive who is now the CEO of the operation, calls it "the beginning of a real transformation in the way we think about energy in America."
Maybe. But oil-industry engineer Robert Rapier, who has spent years studying cellulosic ethanol, says that the difference between ethanol from corn and ethanol from cellulose is "like the difference between traveling to the moon and traveling to Mars." And even if the engineering hurdles can be overcome, there's still the problem of land use: According to Rapier, replacing fifty percent of our current gasoline consumption with cellulosic ethanol would consume thirteen percent of the land in the United States - about seven times the land currently utilized for corn production.
Increasing the production of cellulosic ethanol will also require solving huge logistical problems, including delivering vast quantities of feedstock to production plants. According to one plant manager in the Midwest, fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass would require delivering a semi-truckload of the grass every six minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Finally, there is the challenge of wrestling the future away from Big Corn. "It's pretty clear to me that the corn guys will use all their lobbying muscle and political power to stall, thwart and sidetrack this revolution," says economist C. Ford Runge.
In the end, the ethanol boom is another manifestation of America's blind faith that technology will solve all our problems. Thirty years ago, nuclear power was the answer. Then it was hydrogen. Biofuels may work out better, especially if mandates are coupled with tough caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Still, biofuels are, at best, a huge gamble. They may help cushion the fall when cheap oil vanishes, but if we rely on ethanol to save the day, we could soon find ourselves forced to make a choice between feeding our SUVs and feeding children in the Third World. And we all know how that decision will go.
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