Monbiot: 40% of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars

UK environmentalist George Monbiot explains why it is so important for rich-world governments to fix their misguided “Green” policies. The 40% of the US corn crop gobbled up in US-subsidized ethanol is a horrible example of “feel good” policy that does great harm. The only “good” produced by that policy is reelection for corn-state politicians, and perhaps presidents.


Already, 40% of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars(6). The proportion will rise this year as a result of the smaller harvest. Though the market for biodiesel is largely confined to the European Union, it has already captured seven per cent of the world’s output of vegetable oil(7). The European Commission admits that its target (10% of transport fuels by 2020) will raise world cereal prices by between 3 and 6%(8). Oxfam estimates that with every 1% increase in the price of food, another 16 million people go hungry(9).

By 2021, the OECD says, 14% of the world’s maize and other coarse grains, 16% of its vegetable oil and 34% of its sugarcane will be used to make people in the gas guzzling nations feel better about themselves(10). The demand for biofuel will be met, it reports, partly through an increase in production; partly through a “reduction in human consumption.”(11) The poor will starve so that the rich can drive.

The rich world’s demand for biofuels is already causing a global land grab. ActionAid estimates that European companies have now seized five million hectares of farmland – an area the size of Denmark – in developing countries for industrial biofuel production(12). Small farmers, growing food for themselves and local markets, have been thrown off their land and destituted. Tropical forests, savannahs and grasslands have been cleared to plant what the industry still calls “green fuels”.

When the impacts of land clearance and the use of nitrogen fertilisers are taken into account, biofuels produce more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do(13,14,15). The UK, which claims that half the biofuel sold here meets its sustainability criteria, solves this problem by excluding the greenhouse gas emissions caused by changes in land use(16). Its sustainability criteria are, as a result, worthless.

Even second generation biofuels, made from crop wastes or wood, are an environmental disaster, either extending the cultivated area or removing the straw and stovers which protect the soil from erosion and keep carbon and nutrients in the ground. The combination of first and second generation biofuels – encouraging farmers to plough up grasslands and to leave the soil bare – and hot summers could create the perfect conditions for a new dust bowl.

Our government knows all this. One of its own studies shows that if the European Union stopped producing biofuels, the amount of vegetable oils it exported to world markets would rise by 20% and the amount of wheat by 33%, reducing world prices(17).


What’s Really Holding Cellulosic Biofuels Back

Robert Rapier does the math:

There was a recent article in MIT Technology review called What’s Holding Biofuels Back? There is a relatively simple answer to the question that I will delve into below, but the short answer to “What’s holding biofuels back?” is that we placed unreasonable expectations on them to begin with, and they have simply failed to meet those unreasonable expectations. People would think it was unreasonable if Congress mandated a cure for the common cold within 5 years, but they don’t think twice when Congress mandates the creation of a cellulosic ethanol industry within 5 years. Yet either scenario requires technical breakthroughs that are not assured.

(…) That’s also why I maintain that cellulosic ethanol will never be produced at a lower cost than corn ethanol: It is much more challenging to unlock the sugars in biomass than in corn. People may project lower costs, but they do so on the basis of models that have not been validated in the real world.

Dead zone in gulf linked to ethanol production

The ethanol scam is not just wasting taxpayer’s wealth to enrich corn growers and their politicians. The runoff is creating an enormous Gulf of Mexico hypoxic “dead zone” (thanks to James Holland for this link):

While the BP oil spill has been labeled the worst environmental catastrophe in recent U.S. history, a biofuel is contributing to a Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” the size of New Jersey that scientists say could be every bit as harmful to the gulf.

Each year, nitrogen used to fertilize corn, about a third of which is made into ethanol, leaches from Midwest croplands into the Mississippi River and out into the gulf, where the fertilizer feeds giant algae blooms. As the algae dies, it settles to the ocean floor and decays, consuming oxygen and suffocating marine life.

Known as hypoxia, the oxygen depletion kills shrimp, crabs, worms and anything else that cannot escape. The dead zone has doubled since the 1980s and is expected this year to grow as large as 8,500 square miles and hug the Gulf Coast from Alabama to Texas.

As to which is worse, the oil spill or the hypoxia, “it’s a really tough call,” said Nathaniel Ostrom, a zoologist at Michigan State University. “There’s no real answer to that question.”

Some scientists fear the oil spill will worsen the dead zone, because when oil decomposes, it also consumes oxygen. New government estimates on Thursday indicated that the BP oil spill had gushed as much as 141 million gallons since an oil-rig explosion and well blowout on April 20 that killed 11 workers.

Corn is biggest culprit

The gulf dead zone is the second-largest in the world, after one in the Baltic Sea. Scientists say the biggest culprit is industrial-scale corn production. Corn growers are heavy users of both nitrogen and pesticides. Vast monocultures of corn and soybeans, both subsidized by the federal government, have displaced diversified farms and grasslands throughout the Mississippi Basin.

“The subsidies are driving farmers toward more corn,” said Gene Turner, a zoologist at Louisiana State University. “More nitrate comes off corn fields than it does off of any other crop by far. And nitrogen is driving the formation of the dead zone.”

(…) Ethanol consumes two-thirds of all federal subsidies for renewable fuels, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, leaving solar, wind and the rest to fight over the remaining third. Corn ethanol cost taxpayers $17 billion from 2005 to 2009, his group estimates.

“This is another industry that’s entirely a creature of the government, even more so than corn growing per se,” Cook said. “The production of ethanol wouldn’t happen at all without government subsidies and protection.”

Read more »
It’s challenging to isolate the specific contribution of corn ethanol to the hypoxia. I’ve searched a bit for research on this but haven’t found anything solid — I think because the runoff data isn’t available. I infer that there isn’t sufficient motivation to invest in developing the data. That applies to many important common-resource issues, such as fisheries. It is very expensive to acquire the population data necessary to “manage” commercial fishing — so most of the policy setting is done without hard data until it is too late.

Rapeseed biofuel ‘produces more greenhouse gas than oil or petrol’

Rapeseed and maize biodiesels were calculated to produce up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels… “One wants rational decisions rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon because superficially something appears to reduce emissions”

Regular readers know that we have campaigned to stop the tariffs and subsidies for U.S. corn ethanol — which turns out to be an even worse “solution” than we thought.

Dr Dave Reay, of the University of Edinburgh, used the findings to calculate that with the US Senate aiming to increase maize ethanol production sevenfold by 2022, greenhouse gas emissions from transport will rise by 6 per cent.

That is, the massive transfer payments to farmers and political contributors will INCREASE GHG by 6% over the baseline of continuing to use fossil fuels.

…Rapeseed and maize biodiesels were calculated to produce up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels. The concerns were raised over the levels of emissions of nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists found that the use of biofuels released twice as much as nitrous oxide as previously realised. The research team found that 3 to 5 per cent of the nitrogen in fertiliser was converted and emitted. In contrast, the figure used by the International Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the extent and impact of man-made global warming, was 2 per cent. The findings illustrated the importance, the researchers said, of ensuring that measures designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are assessed thoroughly before being hailed as a solution.

“One wants rational decisions rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon because superficially something appears to reduce emissions,” said Keith Smith, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and one of the researchers.

Maize for ethanol is the prime crop for biofuel in the US where production for the industry has recently overtaken the use of the plant as a food. In Europe the main crop is rapeseed, which accounts for 80 per cent of biofuel production.

Professor Smith told Chemistry World: “The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuels are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto.”

It was accepted by the scientists that other factors, such as the use of fossil fuels to produce fertiliser, have yet to be fully analysed for their impact on overall figures. But they concluded that the biofuels “can contribute as much or more to global warming by N2 O emissions than cooling by fossil-fuel savings”.

The research is published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, where it has been placed for open review. The research team was formed of scientists from Britain, the US and Germany, and included Professor Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on ozone.

Dr Franz Conen, of the University of Basel in Switzerland, described the study as an “astounding insight”.

“It is to be hoped that those taking decisions on subsidies and regulations will in future take N2O emissions into account and promote some forms of ’biofuel’ production while quickly abandoning others,” he told the journal’s discussion board.