If you stopped reading National Geographic in grade school you missed the magazine's turn toward a more issue-oriented publication. This month (October) the Geographic takes on the rush to produce biofuels with the subtitle "The Wrong Way, The Right Way." Guess which column the magazine puts corn ethanol in?
"Biofuels as currently rendered in the U.S. are doing great things for some farmers and for agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargil, but little for the environment," the Geographic states. "Corn requires large doses of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer and can cause more soil erosion than any other crop. And producing corn ethanol consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces."
The magazine continues: "The boom has already pushed corn prices to heights not seen in years, spurring U.S. growers to plant the largest crop since World War II. Around a fifth of the harvest will be brewed into ethanol--more than double the amount only five years ago. Yet such is the thirst for gasoline among SUV-loving Americans that even if we turned our entire corn and soybean crops into biofuels, they would replace just 12 percent of our gasoline and a paltry 6 percent of our diesel, while squeezing supplies of corn- and soy-fattened beef, pork, and poultry. Not to mention Corn Flakes."
Gosh, we could hardly have said it better ourselves, although we might also have mentioned the tortilla crisis brought on in Mexico by the spike in corn prices. Ethanol is literally taking food out of the mouths of the world's poor, and promises to vastly expand the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizers washing down the Mississippi basin.
The plunge into biofuels and ethanol in particular represents the sheer madness of a culture that can't bear to think of life without an unlimited ability to motor around in automobiles. The U.S. Congress, which was loathe for so many years to increase fuel efficiency standards and has little interest in funding public transporation, has jumped into corn-based ethanol with both feet, creating a huge boon for agribusiness and industrial-scale farmers. (Wanna guess who some of the biggest lobbiests in Washington are?)
Rapid construction of new ethanol plants is breathing new life into some cornbelt communities. "You're almost tempted to get out of the cattle business and sell your corn outright," quips one Nebraska beef rancher.
The problem with corn ethanol, first, is that it delivers about 30 percent fewer miles per gallon than gasoline. The process of producing it also consumes as much energy as it delivers and spews tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
To make fuel, the corn is ground up, mixed with water and then treated with enzymes that convert the grain into alcohol. It's basically the same as any distillation process. To recover the alcohol, the mix has to be heated and in this case the heating is done with natural gas (a rapidly depleting resource) and increasingly coal (a big polluter). And growing corn consumes huge quantities of nitrogen fertilizer--also made from natural gas--and can only be grown with the use of fossil-fuel-burning, industrial-scale farm equipment.
"Biofuels are a total waste and misleading us from getting at what we really need to do: conservation," says Cornell University David Pimentel, an outspoken critic of ethanol.
The Geographic takes a more favorable look at the miracle in Brazil, where the country has given up its dependence on gasoline in favor of fuels made from sugar cane (note the rapidly disappearing rain forests). There are also efforts to make fuel from other forms of biomass and algae. It's well worth a read.