As we continue to search for energy sources that are safer, cleaner and more sustainable than oil, it is important that we consider the many impacts of these new sources. In general, new industries will create job opportunities and limit foreign dependence, but there will also be new challenges in protecting natural resources. Corn ethanol is one potential energy source that is often debated in the news today, but we still need to consider if it fulfill the criteria as a safe, clean, and available source of energy.
Map of USA highlighting the Corn Belt. Image: Benc
North America certainly knows how to successfully grow the crop. The “Corn Belt” is an area near the center of the United States sometimes referred to as America’s Heartland. This area stretches from western Pennsylvania to Kansas and north to the Great Lakes and is part of the most profitable agricultural region in the world. The Great Lakes are evidence of past glaciations, which is responsible for the mainly flat surrounding topography. Moderate climate, precipitation and rich soils, as well as accessibility, make this region ideal for agriculture and corn in particular. This region is the world’s leading producer of corn, though it is also considered important because of accessibility by water. It contains Canada’s largest city of Toronto and four of Canada’s seven largest metropolitan areas. There are many thriving American cities as well, such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee. This is indicative of the large population and industrial operations also present in the area.
Corn and soy production have been maintained here even through post-industrial lags in farming. This area currently contains most of the 80 million acres of planted corn in the US, and with a recent push towards biodiesel, the future of the Corn Belt could see major demand increases. US Energy Bills have raised ethanol demand from four billion gallons in 2005 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. This demand is so high it may require the diversion of import corn and will result in a boom of agricultural towns. However, the drawdown of the Ogallala groundwater aquifer may limit the production of the water-intensive corn crop. Lessening the dependence on carbon-emitting foreign oil creates a stress on finding a domestic replacement. Corn ethanol has been the great green hope for a fuel replacement, though it faces harsh criticism. Much of the corn grown here is used as feed for grazing animals, which now find themselves in competition for the crop. Though ethanol byproducts may provide a source of livestock feed, livestock operations are still suffering from the subsidized
Corn as a crop requires large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide that can reduce soil quality, cause erosion, and leach into waterways creating downstream problems. Currently, corn ethanol production itself requires a high carbon imprint of fossil fuels even before transportation costs. Diesel machinery works the crop fields and coal or natural gas-fired plants drive distillation. Putting corn crops in high demand will be economically advantageous for large corn productions, but may squeeze out smaller farmland and other crops, as well as jeopardizing carbon-converting conservation land. This means that not only will livestock be competing for crops, but so will the population as more agricultural land is used for ethanol. The crop will also be threatened by flooding events such as the Midwestern floods last winter which may have damaged next year’s crop. Food prices may be driven up as a result, and more land converted for crop use.
Image: US Department of Energy
Current numbers place the recent corn crop as the largest since the end of WWII, one fifth of which is for ethanol production, but a recent National Geographic scorecard rated corn ethanol as only 22% less emitive than gasoline, and because it contains significantly less energy than gas, even the largest corn crops would only replace less than a quarter of current American gas use. Today, ethanol use is at record highs though there are few ethanol filling stations despite the boom, most of which are located in the Corn Belt itself. No one can argue that the Heartland will benefit immensely from the new commodity. If it proves to be effective, then billions of dollars in subsidies and defense, as well as the lives of soldiers fighting to retain connection to foreign oil supplies, may be worth the risks. If the process can be made more effective and ethanol pipelines are built then America’s Corn Belt may turn its golden fields into golden fuels.
The largest impact is that it will drive the cost of corn and other foods up tremendously. Additionally, it will put a strain on the production of corn–to meet demand. It is not our best option right now, and not nearly efficient enough. Additionally, weening off oil to quickly may cause a lot of turmoil in the middle east.
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