A Simple Alternative to Ethanol

“Surging food prices fuel ethanol critics,” noted a recent AFP headline. With the commodity food price index (a combined figure of various foodstuffs) up 40% over the past year the danger of feeding cars food has shot back onto the media/political radar.

By using land to feed cars, bio-fuels have unleashed a battle between automobile owners and the world’s two billion poorest people. George Monbiot explains: “the market responds to money, not need. People who own cars by definition have more money than people at risk of starvation: their demand is ‘effective’, while the groans of the starving are not. In a contest between cars and people, the cars would win.” They are already winning. Foreign investors have been buying large tracts of land in Africa to cultivate biofuels while the recent food price spike is one factor in the upheaval in northern Africa and the Middle East.

Ten days ago the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons warned that the push by Western governments to increase biofuel production could cause 200,000 deaths in poorer countries. Recently, the New York Times explained, “each year, an ever larger portion of the world’s crops — cassava and corn, sugar and palm oil — is being diverted for biofuels as developed countries pass laws mandating greater use of nonfossil fuels.” 7-8 per cent of the world’s cereal crop will be used for biofuels this year.

Growing corn to fuel an average U.S. car takes five times more land than what’s needed to feed a person. According to the Earth Policy Institute director Lester Brown, “the grain grown to produce fuel in the U.S. [in 2009] was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels.”

Between 2005 and 2009 U.S. ethanol production more than tripled. About 10.6 billion gallons of bio-fuel were produced in 2009, which is expected to reach 15 billion gallons next year. By 2022 Washington wants that number to reach 36 billion and they are prepared to subsidize it. In 2010, oil refiners received upwards of $7 billion in federal subsidies for mixing ethanol into gas.

Proponents claim that the next generation of ethanol will depend on large plant matter instead of foodstuff, but there are problems with this plan. Breaking down plant cellulose into fermentable sugars currently requires more energy than it creates. Additionally, tremendous energy is needed to harvest bulky, heavy plant matter and to ship it to ethanol refineries. Over $1 billion in public money has been spent researching more efficient ways of turning plants into cellulose without much success. In October 2010 Grist noted, “for decades, boosters deemed cellulosic ethanol ‘five years way’ from commercial viability. Now its status has been upgraded to ‘within reach.’ Progress!”

Leaving aside the pressure on food prices and resulting malnutrition among the world’s poor, ethanol’s ecological benefits are far from clear. Most studies show that gasoline made from U.S. corn produces about 15 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional gas. Some studies suggest, however, that corn-based ethanol produces more CO2 than oil-based gasoline if all the energy used in the growth phase is properly accounted for. Even if carbon emissions are reduced, ethanol has a variety of drawbacks. It is shipped in energy intensive trucks or trains, takes huge amounts of water to produce and increases air pollutants as well as nitrides and pesticides.

Rather than ecology, the push for ethanol gas in the U.S. was largely driven by economic considerations. In the late 1970s, the New York Times noted that Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) “tried to solve a problem with seasonal overcapacity in its corn syrup plants by producing something else from abundant corn supplies: ethanol. That set off a two-decade-long lobbying and public relations effort by the elder Mr. Andreas [ADM president] to win broader acceptance for ethanol as a fuel.” Among the world’s largest agricultural conglomerates, ADM now does billions of dollars in annual ethanol business.

For their part, U.S. automakers support ethanol because it deflects attention away from improving fuel mileage (or focusing on non-car transport). In fact, under Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations, making vehicles that can run on ethanol permits carmakers to sell more fuel intensive cars. A vehicle that can run on petroleum gasoline or 85 percent ethanol (E85) receives “a much higher mileage rating than it really gets” even though most of these cars never fill up with E85.

Fortunately, there’s a simple alternative to ethanol. It’s called a bike.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.