Move Over, Meat: A More Wasteful Use of Corn

Vegetarians used to be able to say that most corn grown in the U. S. went for livestock. According to the USDA, that won’t be true this year. Something which is even more wasteful, even more mind-boggling in its stupidity, has come along: corn ethanol.The website reports: “For the first time in US history vehicles are predicted to use more corn than livestock this year. According to USDA estimates, 5.1 billion bushels of corn will be used to make ethanol this year, compared to 4.9 billion for livestock feed.”

Most of what is driving this ethanol boom is huge government subsidies, but another factor is the rising price of oil. There is a government mandate for use of corn ethanol, but as oil prices go up, ethanol looks better for another reason — it’s relatively less expensive. Feeding corn to cattle is really, really wasteful, but at the end at least you wind up with something to eat. With corn ethanol, you get nothing to eat at all. You just get something to put in your car.

Well, at least corn ethanol helps us deal with climate change? Actually, no, it doesn’t. Corn ethanol actually makes the climate change situation worse. That’s because all the corn produced in this industrialized process is grown using huge quantities of land using massive energy inputs.

Because this is corn is so energy-intensive, it actually takes more fossil fuel energy to produce the corn ethanol than you get in corn ethanol energy (Pimentel, Patzek, and Cecil, “Ethanol Production: Energy, Economic, and Environmental Losses,” Rev Environ Contam Toxicol 189:25–41, 2007).  Even if you count the energy savings of using some of the corn byproducts in ethanol production as animal feed, you are still losing energy by producing corn ethanol.  You’d use less fossil fuel energy by just consuming gasoline directly, rather than going through the biofuels charade.

At best, the waste products from one very wasteful practice (corn ethanol) can be used to make another very wasteful practice (livestock) just a little bit less wasteful.  Why don’t we just stop the wasteful practices altogether, if we’re really serious about saving energy?  Isn’t this obvious?

In 2008 there were food riots all over the world (including Mexico) as scarce grain and rising oil prices drove the price of food up. In early 2011, as food prices soared again, food riots broke out again in the Arab world, one of the key forces driving the “Arab Spring” and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Many people blamed corn ethanol for driving up prices, but they should really have also blamed the livestock industry, which still leads the way in overall wastefulness.

Corn ethanol’s dominance may be short-lived. A key ethanol subsidy will expire at the end of the year, although the mandates to use ethanol will continue. This will leave lawmakers wrangling over whether the best way to prop up a dying economy is to pillage the environment with corn ethanol, or pillage the environment with livestock agriculture. What a dilemma!

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