Corn for food or ethanol?

It isn’t really a question. I wanted to call the attention of the thoughtful folks here to this interesting take on the ethanol/biofuels story. Comments and arguments, and counter-references most welcome, of course.


  1. 0 Votes

    Neither, I think? Here’s where I’m confused: As I understand it, we have two problems. (1) That we produce too much corn in America because of government subsidies, and (2) That because of other government subsidies and mandates, we also burn an enormous amount of that corn in biofuels… which can lead to a food shortage. 

    This is where I’m confused– if we are producing more corn than is naturally demanded, how can burning some of it as biofuels be leading to food shortages? Aren’t these two conclusions inherently antithetical?

    Personally, my feeling is that we shouldn’t be burning food as fuel, and at the same time, we shouldn’t be producing so much corn. I think biofuels are great, but I believe so-called second generation cellulosic biofuels that utilize the non-foodstuff part of the grain must be the answer (or other non-foodstuff organic material like algae). It seems patently absurd to me to be burning perfectly good food in our engines.

    But at the same time, I think our corn for food situation is also a mess. I recently watched the documentary King Corn, and unless they have the facts wrong, our domestic food policy is equally absurd. The idea that corn products make their way into such a broad portion of our food supplies simply because they are cheap, because they have been subsidized, is also ridiculous. This policy leads to corn making its way into our entire food chain. From corn sugar filled drinks to corn fed cows, I believe the list of food products that have corn in them only because of its unnaturally low price, is extensive.

    So, in sum, I think I would say “neither” to “corn for food or corn for ethanol.” Corn subsidies, like all subsidies, distort markets, and without an overwhelmingly clear reason for justifying the policy, it should be eliminated.

    (and as a side note, rigibson, I’ve really enjoyed your perspectives on greenanswers, so I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this issue.)

    • 0 Votes

      Thanks for this thoughtful note. I’m all for alternatives, but blind or rosy-colored belief in anything non-fossil gets us nowhere. As you point out, the interplay between fuels and foods is complex and much of it is a mess. All alternatives have trade-offs and I’m definitely not an expert on ethanol, but more and more there are indications of its negative impacts – from fertilizer (largely causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico) to its cost in energy to make it, to these food/fuel issues, to a not-so-rosy carbon footprint. Personally I just think Americans consume way too much of everything. We all like our computers, cars, air conditioners, etc but there’s likely soon to be little choice but to scale a lot of our consumption back – probably a lot. American consumption (and resource reliance) is the underlying theme in my forthcoming book “What Things Are Made Of – America’s global dependency for nearly everything” and research for that is my basis for lots that I say (other than oil, which I was in exploration for most of my career).

      I like your answer of “neither” a lot. Thanks again for the post.

    • 0 Votes

      Yes, unfortunately I tend to agree that a blind faith in non-fossil solutions is just that, blind. With that said, I’m not resigned to fossil fuels and I hope that we can figure out viable alternatives (other than less consumption). This hope is what may ultimately lead some individual or organization to real innovation. However, I’m also realistic (pessimistic?) enough to realize that less consumption may in reality be the only solution.

      When do you plan on releasing “What Things Are Made Of”? Sounds like it will be very interesting.

    • 0 Votes

      Thanks.. I don’t really want to advertise/promote here, but if you want to follow you can find information about that book on my blog, here:

  2. 0 Votes

    I agree with number19, we use much too much cheap corn for everything from syrup, to fuel, to cups. Corn as biofuel was a good start, but not good enough. We should build and improve that technology.

    Additionally, I think the government needs to either reconsider pushing corn and cheese onto us at the expense of our health, or at least level with us and say current economic policy needs us to eat these things. Or, better yet, improve the system.

  3. mle
    0 Votes

    rigibson, thanks for bringing up such a thought provoking article!  I have also enjoyed following your answers and perspectives.  Number 19 made one of the points that I was thinking; our subsidizing of corn.  

    I’m not going to discuss this, but I have to bring up the fact that most corn is now GMO.

    In terms of subsidizing; it is my understanding that the US changed agricultural policy in roughly the 1970s to the policy we follow now.  Before, the policy worked to keep overproduction from pushing prices too low so that farmers were able to earn a living.  With our latest policy and the abundance of cheap corn farmers aren’t able to make a living.  

    What does this have to do with fuel?  Since farmers are desperate to sell their corn, we have created a situation where corn is used for food, food-like products (for example, high fructose corn syrup), fuel, packing peanuts, chocolate, chewing gum, shoe polish, textiles, crayons, wallboard, insecticides… the list is endless! (see the link below for more products made from corn).

    Yet people ae starving.

    In terms of fossil fuels, I would rather see corn being used as fuel instead of chewing gum or mustard.  I suspect there is enough corn to feed people and use  it for fuel; perhaps we need to reconsider some of the the other products that we are making with corn first.

    Unfortunately, the corn as food issue appears to have much to do with profits.

    In addition, while starving people can eat corn unless they are able to grow corn or somehow create a trade, this [theoretical] group of people become completely dependent on shipped corn.

    There are some thoughts; I realize that I haven’t pulled them together in a neat package; in my mind the answers to this question are not neatly packaged (yet).

    I look forward to reading others thoughts.

  4. 0 Votes

    To say that ethanol has no influence on corn prices in the USA would be absurd. The ethanol industry can be blamed for building too many plants too fast. That said, if all ethanol production were ceased, we then would be faced with 40% too much corn. Did I really say surplus corn? Well, we continue to export about the same amount of corn as we have for the past decade. Domestic consumption would only be slightly higher if meat were cheap. Unless the taxpayer would be willing to pay for 40% of our crop to be given to starving millions, then we would be stuck with a massive corn surplus.

    Our average corn yield per acre increases about 3% year over year relentlessly. If we do not increase corn ethanol much, soon we will again have substantial corn surplus. While this seems insane when current prices are so high and the crop is tight relative to current demand, this is the nature of commodities: Crops do not meet demand, prices go up. Prices go up, farmers respond by planting more and / or increasing inputs to achieve better yields. Then, with bumper crops again, prices go down. In 2008, the “food for fuel” cry was invented. Ethanol output increased dramatically the next two years, but corn prices dropped. How? Supply was in better balance. In spite of government intent, industrial effort, and everyone’s preference, our species can not regulate weather.

    More than half of the “starving nations” have highly productive land that could feed themselves and the world while producing biofuels. Agricultural mismanagement in underdeveloped nations is not caused by America. Giving them free food removes any incentive for their local farmers to produce more. Our foreign policy needs to increase the incentives for those regions to manage their agricultural productivity much better.

  5. 0 Votes

    I agree with pyotrpetrovich that our foreign policy needs to change but I think that’s just as easier said than done as averting the detriment of the monocultures we’re discussing. The IMF’s structural readjusting of developing nations can solidify the dependency on the U.S. through privitization and outside regulation.

    Not only can foreign policy have adverse affects but monoclutures themselves can be a suicide mission, the Irish Potato Famine being a prime example. I don’t know what the answer is but I believe there needs to be tighter regulation on biofuels worldwide. The amount of land needed to perpetuate ethanol crops in America is something like 1.0 million square miles to counteract 50% of automobile miles driven. (Source cited). 

    Number 19 I think I’m following your ideas mostly but that perturbs me because I don’t know where it leaves as as far as progress goes. I hope this conversation continues as I’m learning very much from it. 

  6. 0 Votes

    I do not know who started the ‘food for fuel’ tag but if he had done any research he would have realized his mistake.  I grow corn in southern Ontario and am invested in an ethanol plant here.  I usually do not respond to ethanol topics because they quickly get out of hand but the previous responses were rational.  The ethanol process removes the starch from the kernal of corn by a fermentation process – essentially this is a huge moonshine still.  We produce three products – ethanol, DDGs and CO2 – at a ratio of  about 1/3 each.

    Ethanol is used in gasoline to enhance octane.  We removed lead from gas years ago because of environmental and health problems.  But we added two substances almost as bad – MTBE and MMT – depending on which side of the border you were on.  Ethanol at 10% replaced these additives.

    Dried distillers grains (DDGs) is the mash left from the corn kernal.  The raw corn has about 7% protein and after the process that removes starch DDGs have about 21% protein.  This product is a supplment for livestock feed rather than feeding raw corn and wasting most of the starch component.

    The CO2 gas can be captured and is used in the food and beverage industry.  So nothing is waste, nothing is lost. 

    And even before ethanol – no one ate my corn as I produced it; not in any country.  The world is finally realizing we have more and more people to feed and more of that population wants and can afford a better diet than rice.

    We started our quest to build an ethanol plant in January of 2002.   At that time cellulosic ethanol production was merely ‘5 years away’.  Even with massive government investment, it is still ‘5 years away’  And the brains behind this process are proposing to get raw material from farmers, they will have to compete with all the other crops I produce.  Most farmers I know produce for money – if it doesn’t pay we don’t grow.

    My two typing fingers are worn out.  I hope this enlightens.

  7. cjp
    0 Votes

    Agriculture is the dominant water user, consuming more than 70% of total global water demand.Industrially produced meat is especially waterintensive, requiring up to 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram, compared to approximately 1,200 litres to produce a kilogram of grain. Both population growth and increasing meat consumption in emerging economies will therefore have a tremendous impact on resource needs. over the next 10 years, the world population is expected to rise from the current 6.83 billion to approximately 7.7 billion, with most of the growth in emerging economies. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects a 50% increase in demand for food by 2030, and the International Food Policy Research Instituted (IFRI) expects a 30% increase in demand for water, with other estimates rising to over 40%. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that the world economy will demand at least 40% more energy by 2030; producing this energy will draw heavily on freshwater resources. For such increased demand for water, food and energy to be realized, significant and perhaps radical changes in water use will be required as well as new sources for food and energy production exploited. For food production, supply-related challenges may limit the ability of farmers to meet growth in demand. Already, major grain-producing areas – in China, India and the United States, for example – depend on unsustainable mining of groundwater. In some regions, such as North Africa and Australia, climate-related changes of precipitation have already critically reduced the levels of freshwater supply. In northeast China, one of the country’s main grain-producing regions, climate change could increase drought losses by over 50% by 2030.10 Climate change is likely to be exacerbated by meeting the growing demand for energy. Over 75% of the global increase in energy use from 2007-2030 is expected to be met through fossil fuels, especially coal, and an estimated 77% of the power stations required to meet demand are yet to be built. In this context most importantly, focusing on the critical Connections between Water-Food-Energy-Climate is required to be considered and decision-makers will have to inspire all to engage collectively in efforts to improve the global system’s overall resilience. The need of hour is to grow food crop for food, Conserve the forest and pasture land and Grow Fuel crops on no arable land We at CJP are engaged in development and research of nonfood Oil crops which grow on wasteland some of them are Castor, Moringa, Pongamia, Simarouba, Jojoba, Jatropha, algae etc. We provide a platform for all stakeholders to collaborate in shaping a more secure, innovative and resilient future. Our next 4th JatrophaWorld 2011 from September 14-18, 2011 is the best place to be educated about Promising and sustainable biodiesel crops and technology for more kindly visit our site 

  8. 0 Votes

    Something that relates to this topic, and was mentioned above, is the movie King Corn. It mainly talks about how everything we consume is derived from corn in some way, and how because it is so cheap and subsidized it is used for so many different things. It is definitely a documentary worth checking out, especially for those more curious about how corn has a larger contribution to our lives than we may think.

Please signup or login to answer this question.

Sorry,At this time user registration is disabled. We will open registration soon!