Many crops currently used as bio-fuel, such as soybeans, sugarcane and corn, are traditionally used as staples. These staple food crops have other uses as well, such as animal feed, and generally require the same soil types and occupy the same agricultural space. The flexibility of such crops has given rise to a "food vs. fuel" debate that has introduced a moral and pragmatic dimension hitherto unthought of. This has been especially acute in the United States where alternative energy sources are viewed with a fair amount of apprehension at the best of times.
Corn production gives the starkest insight in the competition between the two as it struggles to balance the demands of the ethanol plants and its designation as a foodstock. The global economic shift of the last five or so years, and the rising oil prices have put more pressure on corn producers to make a profit and due to the sharp price fluctuations in agro based industries many have opted to diversify their markets. In the United States, farms have been adapting for a long time now, with livestock farmers eschewing corn as a typical animal feed due to its added value. There is also a marked price increase in flour, grain and many other derivatives which is doing nothing to alleviate growing fears over food security. This trade-off has certainly raised a few concerned voices, with Jean Ziegler infamously declaring such a situation as a ‘crime against humanity’ way back in 2008. The World Bank has been the most vocal, producing a 2008 report pinning over two-thirds of the food price rise on bio-fuel production alone with the OECD wading in with criticism of the questionable capacity of ethanol to reduce Green House Emissions sufficiently amongst many other criticisms.
Of course, using corn as bio-fuel is old news but the use is steadily increasing, taking up valuable acreage for foodstocks. Its value is perhaps reflected in the thinking that its crop residue could also lend to boosting ethanol production stocks. Almost all the ethanol in the United States is produced using corn grain as the feedstock and it is unlikely that ethanol will lose its prominence at the top of the pile any time soon.
Now this is where it gets interesting. Extremely generous US government subsidies for corn based ethanol production and the 10% blend mandate for all gasoline, from the boom years of the nineties practically tied up the commodity within the burgeoning bio-fuel scene and this has been a major contributor to the large scale increase in prices over the last five years. The figures back this up. The U.S. produced 13.2 billion U.S Liquid Gallons (50.0 billion liters) of ethanol fuel in 2010 which makes it the worlds largest ethanol producer. U.S. ethanol production this year will consume 15 percent of the world's corn supply, up from 10 percent in 2008, impressive figures.
This brings us back to the issue of apportionment. Corn being the flexible devil that it is, has found itself being exploited. The mechanics of political grandstanding and investor-friendly proclamations are always grandiose when connected to future technologies. The success of ethanol production was cemented through hype even though it is quite probably not the best suited to bio-fuel production in light of newer alternatives, something which has slowly been dawning in the Corn states of Ohio and Wyoming in light of recent electioneering campaigns. Even the US Environmental Protection Agency has pointed out that Ethanol production is a relatively resource-intensive process that requires the use of water, electricity, and steam which is not particularly encouraging when ethanol has a smaller energy density than gasoline. It is altogether, rather a poor show for the industry.
Perhaps it is time to reimagine the contours of the corn–ethanol industry complex, or at the very least put more emphasis on diversification. One thing for sure is that there are enough reasons to suggest the US government has been shortsighted in its reliance on ethanol derived from corn stock and has led to a lopsided and expensive approach to achieving energy security. There are not enough voices making the link between food prices and ethanol production and even if it is becoming more of an issue since the economic crisis, we are hardly likely to see a reverse in the ethanol mandate. The industry is well built, attracting strongs sales from China and it is fulfilling the rather sparse requirements of the US government to be seen as being pro-active in renewables. This is a shame, because there are other options out there, especially with increased future demand for food continuing to grow and advances in next generation bio-fuel research.
Benjamin Wells is a freelance energy journalist currently working for the Croix Rouge in Paris. He has a special interest in cellulosic technologies and its political implications.