Corn. There's nothing like eating it right off the cob at a picnic. It's also great as flakes, fritters, or a muffin. And it's feed for livestock. But there's one thing corn should not be: A solution for global warming or a way to reduce America's dependency on foreign oil.
Corn-based ethanol fuel has been growing wildly in recent years. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the US now has 129 ethanol plants, with more than 50 online since just 2005. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Bush called for the US to make 35 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2017, about 15 percent of its total liquid fuels.
Today, half the gasoline sold in the US contains some ethanol. But the problems of mass- producing this type of ethanol are beginning to crop up.
One problem, according to a report this month from the National Research Council, is that the projected increases in the use of corn to produce ethanol could cause considerable harm to water quality and supply. Pushing corn production into drier regions could drain aquifers and compete with other needs for water such as hydropower and fish habitat. The heavy use of nitrogen needed to fertilize corn crops could harm the quality of groundwater, rivers, and coastal waters, causing "dead zones." A single corn-ethanol refinery that produces 100 million gallons a year would use enough water to supply a town of 5,000 people, the study concluded.
Ethanol also doesn't travel well through pipelines because it easily picks up water and other contaminants. That means it's impractical to ship it over long distances.
Then there's the effect on food prices. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned last month that diversion of land from food or livestock feed production would inflate food prices by cutting the supply of available corn.
Prices are already up, and American farmers are planting the biggest corn crop since 1944, with an estimated harvest of 13.3 billion bushels, which would be a record. While this may be enough to supply both food and fuel needs now, what will happen as more acreage is turned to ethanol production? What other crops won't be grown in favor of corn, putting pressure on their prices as well?
That doesn't mean we need to give up on all types of ethanol. The next farm bill should speed research on cellulosic ethanol, made from woody plants such as switch grass and willows. These alternatives grow in soil and weather conditions unsuitable for corn.
An earless tropical variety of corn being studied at the University of Illinois may make a better fuel crop. Its stalks can be converted to ethanol more easily, and the plant needs much less nitrogen fertilizer. Earless corn could easily be alternated in fields with ordinary corn, depending on market conditions.
The US could also open its tariff doors to Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane. Studies show that both sugarcane and cellulosic ethanol return several units of energy for every unit used to produce them. Corn yields about 1.5 units.
Ethanol may yet prove a major way to diversify energy sources. But taking corn out of cereal bowls and putting it into gas tanks isn't the answer.