Although ethanol made from corn is a renewable resource, there are still many social and environmental problems connecting with using corn-based ethanol on a large scale. For one thing, modern industrial farming techniques require a lot of fossil fuels; so even though using corn ethanol means we don’t have to burn as much oil in our cars, it takes a lot of oil and other fossil fuels to make it, and corn-based ethanol still contributes to global warming. According to some estimates, the carbon footprint of corn-based ethanol may not be much smaller than that of ordinary gasoline. In addition, using corn for fuel on a large scale will increase demand for corn, raising the price of corn that is used for food as well. This has frightening implications for places like Mexico, where millions of low-income people rely on corn as a staple food. Because of all this, researchers and policymakers are beginning to shift away from an emphasis on corn-based ethanol, and to consider ethanol from other plants that are not used as food, and which require less fossil fuels to grow. However, some of these alternative crops have serious problems of their own. For instance, ethanol can be made from sugar cane much more effectively than corn; however, sugar cane cannot be grown outdoors in a northern climate, and we would have to import it from a tropical country like Brazil. In Brazil, planting more sugar cane for fuel would probably mean clearing large areas of tropical rainforest or savanna – and this in turn would contribute to global warming. Ethanol comes with some benefits, but whether these outweigh the negatives depends on the type of plant used to make it, and how the crop is grown.
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