Exclusive: Biowar I

In this Chem.Info question-and-answer session, industry expert Mark R. Edwards clarifies why battles over food vs. fuel could lead to world hunger. Please find his biography at the bottom of the article. Chem.Info: Is the ethanol industry sustainable? Mark R. Edwards: No.

In this Chem.Info question-and-answer session, industry expert Mark R. Edwards clarifies why battles over food vs. fuel could lead to world hunger. Please find his biography at the bottom of the article.

Chem.Info: Is the ethanol industry sustainable?

Mark R. Edwards: No. America has neither sufficient freshwater, nor fertile cropland to support the ethanol industry. Production of 5 billion gallons of ethanol in 2006 required 50 million tons of corn, and reduced U.S. oil dependency 1.1 percent or about 15 days. As more ethanol refineries come online, they will double the consumption of corn to 100 billion tons.

The industry is unsustainable due to:

  1. Insufficient cropland. The former president’s goal of 35 billion gallons of ethanol will require approximately one quarter of all available U.S. cropland. In most areas, corn must be rotated annually with a nitrogen-fixing crop, such as alfalfa or soybeans, which doubles the land requirement for corn. The U.S. simply has too little cropland to produce enough ethanol.
  2. Insufficient water. Irrigated corn consumes approximately 3 acre-feet of water. This means every gallon of ethanol produced on irrigated land costs about 3,000 gallons or 12 tons of water. Expanded corn production will use marginal land that requires more irrigation because most of the rain-fed corn land is already under production. Most of the corn land west of the Mississippi requires 50 to 100 percent irrigation. Expanded corn production will dry up critical aquifers not only putting farmers out of business, but also putting cities in jeopardy, such as Atlanta and San Diego. California just announced a net zero water allocation due to drought and a low snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
  3. Water pollution. Corn uses more nitrogen than other food crop, but corn plants are inefficient in uptake and may only use half of the fertilizer applied to a field. Nitrogen dissolves easily in water, and corn field runoff enters wetlands, creeks and rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwater. Nitrogen poisoning creates a host of serious health problems, especially for young and older people. Some communities in corn-growing areas, such as Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and California, cannot use their groundwater due to nitrogen pollution. A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report indicated that more than half of U.S. estuaries are unfit for primary use, such as fishing or recreation. Iowa recently announced a $460 million water treatment plan to deal with nitrogen pollution.
  4. Ecological degradation. Row crops like corn cause erosion of about 6 tons of topsoil per acre each year from wind and rain. Eroded topsoil pollutes waterways and groundwater, and creates dead zones in lakes, rivers and estuaries. The dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is larger than the state of New Jersey. Agricultural chemicals pollute wetlands and poison birds, fish, amphibians and other animals. 
  5. Eflation. Ethanol-caused increases in food prices, eflation, will be viewed as unacceptable by U.S. consumers. Increases in food prices from 2006 to 2007 are, for example, cheese at 78 percent, chicken at 24 percent, corn sweeteners at 25 percent and eggs at 80 percent. About 25 percent of the products in American foods stores are corn-based. Analysis of only eight foods indicates that eflation cost each American an extra $263 in 2007 for a total of $79 billion accumulated by U.S. consumers.
  6. Subsidies. The ethanol industry currently requires about $20 billion annually in subsidies when all the water, power, corn, ethanol-refining and other subsidies and incentives are summed. Subsidies for simply refining corn to ethanol at 51 cents a gallon will cost $5 billion for 10 billion gallons of ethanol.
  7. U.S. export destruction. Corn ethanol will drive up the cost of U.S. foods, especially red meat, dairy, poultry and oils, and make them non-competitive in world markets. The U.S. could become a net food imported country, making it quite illogical to burn 100 million tons of food for fuel. The governor of Texas sued the EPA arguing ethanol was destroying the cattle business due to feed price increases. The EPA ruled in its own favor against Texas and the cattle growers.

CI: You tackle the food vs. fuel debate in your book Biowar I: Why Battles over Food and Fuel Lead to World Hunger. What are the latest issues on both sides of this debate?

ME: More than 60 million Americans receive food support, such as food stamps and school lunches, because they are hungry and needy. Burning 100 million tons of our number one food source will double the cost for basic foods. Many of these hungry Americans who lack the means will have half as much to eat. Imagine the entire world’s imported food grains come from one apple. Hungry countries need and depend on their slice of the apple. Currently, the U.S. supplies over one-half the apple. The apple serves as a lifeline for billions of world citizens who subsist on a small fraction of what Americans eat. Hungry countries import grains because domestic food supplies are insufficient. Countries with insufficient water or cropland depend on being able to buy a slice of the apple at an affordable price to assure survival of their people.

The 2008 grain harvest was the fourth year in a row in which the world consumes more grain for fuel, food and livestock feed than it harvests. The trend has depleted global grain stockpiles to their lowest point relative to consumption. Asia, India and Africa struggle with chronic food shortages, and the Soviet Union and the Middle East have emerged as large grain importers.

Global warming and water scarcity act in concert, as they did 2005, to cut about 15 percent from the apple (grain supplied by other countries). The U.S. policy to burn our food will probably take a 50 percent bite out of U.S. grain exports, removing another 25 percent from the apple. Therefore, the world’s apple shrinks by 40 percent at precisely the time when the world’s food reserves reach historic lows, global temperatures are rising, deserts are expanding, aquifers are crashing, and the number of starving people is the highest in Earth’s history. These events put tens of millions of lives at risk. Forty countries experienced food riots in 2008, and many appropriately blamed the U.S. for burning food that would otherwise stabilize world market prices.

President Bush displayed a poor sense of timing as he announced in his 2007 State of the Union address mandates and incentives to increase food burned for fuel by seven times.

The other position supported by government sources say burning 100 million tons of corn will have:

  1. No effect on food prices.
  2. No effect on animal food prices. 
  3. No effect on U.S. exports.
  4. No effect on world food prices.

Those sources have not done the math. Burning at least half of U.S. grain exports will triple the cost of food grains on world markets. Most of the 155 countries that import foods do not have the resources to pay more, so they will have to do with far less food for their people. More than 4 billion people subsist on less than $2 a day. They will be very, very hungry.

CI: Why do you think it’s a myth to say ethanol is a green and/or renewable resource?

ME: Even though green means renewable and nonpolluting, ethanol promoters use green to mean sustainable. Ethanol cannot be considered a sustainable product because it takes so much fossil fuel and fossil resources to produce. Growing corn may be repeatable, but finding or importing sufficient supplies of fossil fuels and resources for ethanol processing is not sustainable.

The Department of Energy (DOE) promised that the shift from nonrenewable fossil fuels that pollute to renewable energy sources, such as ethanol, would cause less pollution.

Many producers must use coal or imported fuel oil for ethanol production, which defeats the purpose of ethanol. Even though corn is a green biomass plant, it is not green in the sense of renewability. It takes about as much nonrenewable energy to produce corn ethanol as the ethanol itself produces. California sued the EPA arguing that the smog produced by ethanol diminished the citrus and grape crops by 25 percent. The EPA ruled in its own favor to the loss of California farmers.

Corn ethanol production creates a mock green product. Many of the government and ethanol industry websites use green color schemes with green themes because they want consumers to think of ethanol as a green product. It looks green and promoters make it sound green, but it’s the same color as the fossil fuels used to create it — black.

Massive growing of corn for ethanol is also unsustainable due to corn’s need for land, water and fertilizer. Corn’s ecological damage fails the test of green product.

CI: What are viable alternatives to ethanol?

ME: For a liquid transportation fuel, algae make far more sense than corn because algae:

  1. Require less than 0.001 as much water, and may use wastewater and recycle the water.
  2. Demand less than 1/22 as much land, and may use deserts, wasteland or rooftops.
  3. Provide 30 times the energy productivity per acre per year.
  4. Create higher energy fuels than ethanol, about 60 percent more energy per gallon.
  5. Offer a 60 percent net energy value compared with near zero for corn.
  6. Lead to a positive air quality in that algae give off O2.
  7. Lead to a positive carbon footprint in that algae feed on CO2.
  8. Lead to a positive ecological footprint in that they produce no pollution.
  9. Provide a net food yield — about 40 percent of the biomass (in addition to 30 percent energy).
  10. Avoid monocropping — thousands of strains of algae are available.

Corn ethanol is not sustainable because it’s too resource-intensive. Massive growing of corn relies on too many non-renewable resources, especially fossil energy, land, water and subsidies. Those fossil resources will soon become unaffordable or unavailable.

Algae are sustainable because the plants are truly renewable and production is resource-efficient and uses inputs that will not run out – sunshine, CO2 and wastewater. The added value of CO2 sequestration and algae’s ability to use available heat from coal-fired power plants and manufacturing facilities provide additional value for algae.

CI: What are the alternatives to American reliance on ethanol?

ME: Algae can produce substantially higher value and truly renewable liquid transporation fuel than corn and also produce food. This green production occurs on a tiny fraction of the land and water used by corn, and it creates no environmental — air, waters or soils — pollution.

Other strong solutions are also available, such as fungi, bacteria, slimes and yeasts. Other forms of renewable energy will supply the electrical grid, but will not produce liquid transportation fuels, such as hydrogen, solar, wind, waves and geothermal.   Mark Edwards, PhD, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in mechanical engineering, oceanography and meteorology. He holds an MBA and PhD in marketing and consumer behavior, and has taught marketing and sustainability at Arizona State University for more than 30 years. His latest book, Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports and Engineer Sustainable Food and Fuel was awarded the 2009 Independent Publishers’ Gold Medal for the “Best Science Book.”