Ethanol: savior of humanity, or global curse?

The law of unintended consequences: Making ethanol to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is playing havoc with food prices.
The law of unintended consequences: Making ethanol to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is playing havoc with food prices.Courtesy swankslot

Well, probably neither. But ethanol – a type of fuel made from plants – has been causing a lot of controversy lately. We’ve talked about this here before.

Many people like ethanol. As the price of gasoline rises, ethanol becomes an economical alternative. We can grow it at home, and not have to buy it from foreign countries who may or may not be our friends. And using it as fuel does not add any extra carbon into the atmosphere.

The problem is, most ethanol today is made from food crops, like corn. The more food we turn into ethanol, the less there is to eat. This puts pressure on food prices, as do droughts and growing populations. Food riots have broken out in several countries, and some people are beginning to rethink the push toward ethanol.

(A rather more bleak assessment of the same phenomenon.)

However, not everybody sees this as gloom-and-doom. Here's a spirited defense of biofuels.

Dennis Avery, Director of the Center for Global Food Issues, argues that the push for ethanol is hurting the movement toward sustainable farming.

However, blogger Austin Bay argues that, while rising demand for ethanol is a factor in food prices, it is far from the only one, or even the most important.

A scientific convention right here in Minneapolis agrees, noting that the problem isn’t biofuel per se, but the use of food crops to make biofuel. If we used non-food crops, we would relieve some pressure on food prices. Furthermore, non-food crops like native prairie grass actually make better ethanol than corn does!

Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, notes the effect of ethanol on food prices, and makes some suggestions for reversing the trend.

Scientists in Tennessee are working on just that, using switchgrass to make ethanol. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Massachusetts are making progress towards turning switchgrass straight into “green gasoline” – a substance chemically identical to gasoline (unlike ethanol, which has some important differences.)

(We’ve discussed switchgrass on Science Buzz before.)

Researchers in Texas are working to make ethanol from sweet sorghum. This would reduce the need to use corn, but sorghum is used in syrup and other sweeteners, so it really wouldn’t solve the food-into-fuel problem.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

MrBig621188's picture
MrBig621188 says:

we should have set fields and rations between using corn for gas and food yes it may reduce on food but it regrows every year and isn't as harmful as gasoline.

posted on Tue, 05/27/2008 - 9:03am
BLB's picture
BLB says:

I think ethanol is going to be the alternate, because gas prices are high and people ain't going to care about the price of corn as much as they do on OIL.


posted on Tue, 05/27/2008 - 9:04am
Jefflemus00's picture
Jefflemus00 says:

If it's not one problem it's another. Now that we found an alternative to gasoline, we find out Ethanol made from corn is raising food prices. *sigh* Well, if you ask me, I would say that eco-friendly ethanol benefits us and the environment more than it hurts food prices. Its all about how much we are willing to sacrifise to get what we want, and in this case what we need. (healthy planet over higher food tell me)

posted on Tue, 05/27/2008 - 9:19am
koallainfestation37's picture
koallainfestation37 says:

what ever way you look at it, inflation will go up and all these new fuel sources are going to cost $10.00 at the pump
our world has a bunk system

posted on Tue, 05/27/2008 - 9:22am
Steve's picture
Steve says:

I heard that one SUV-sized tank of ethanol could feed a person for a year. That may be overstated, and I didn't check the source. Are there other biomass products we could use that aren't also a food source? St. Paul District Energy uses poplar trees for energy because it grows very fast. I have never eaten a poplar tree, so I don't know how they taste, but could we use poplar trees to make fuel for cars?

posted on Tue, 05/27/2008 - 9:54am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I think Gene probably has a better answer for this than I do, but I'm pretty sure that ethanol can be made from other types of biomass. What's the term I'm looking for? Eh...cellulosic ethanol? Oh, a google search could fix this quickly, but I'm so lazy...
Okay, yeah, cellulosic ethanol is the term. The end product is the same (ethanol) but it comes from cellulose (the material that gives most plants their structure) instead of starch or sugar.
Wood chips (among many other things) can be used to make cellulosic ethanol, but there's a lot more processing involved than in making ethanol from corn or sugar cane.

Also, there's this post Artifactor did on ethanol from switchgrass (pretty much the same idea).

posted on Tue, 05/27/2008 - 10:11am
Thor's picture
Thor says:

I think in Brazil they grow beets that are turned into an ethanol-type fuel. I can't believe Dwight Shrute hasn't tapped into this market yet.

posted on Tue, 05/27/2008 - 10:24am
shanee's picture
shanee says:

Now i have a question or anyone to answer.. is ethanol good or bad?

posted on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 8:36am
Candice_318's picture
Candice_318 says:

Ethanol just sounds bad. Just say that name a few times and see how that makes you feel

posted on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 8:40am
Promise Fellow's picture
Promise Fellow says:

What about all the crops we grow to feed animals that we end up eating? Look at this article: If more of us became vegetarians we could alleviate some of the concern about using food crops vs. non-food crops for ethanol production.

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 12:14pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Here's a discussion of some of the issues surrounding biofuel. In brief:

ethanol from corn = bad
biodeisel = good

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 1:56pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Gene, it's crazy! We're agreeing all over the place today! Which one of us was abducted by aliens?

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 2:27pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Nessie and I just spent the weekend orbiting Jupiter, but that's nothing unusual. Perhaps you are finally seeing the wisdom of my ways? ;-)

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 9:36am
Liza's picture
Liza says:


posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 9:39am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Here's an article -- a little old, but still timely -- about diesel engines for cars.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 9:37am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Brazil produces ethanol from sugar cane, then use the waste for cattle feed. The waste product is actually easier to digest because the microbes have partially broken it down. What keeps us from feeding the corn to cattle or swine after it has been fermented? Other alcohols can be produced also, it doesn't absolutely need to be ethanol. Wood, grass, garbage, fecal matter, etc. can also be used if all your going to do is burn it. We don't absolutely need anhydrous alcohol either, 140 proof burns quite well.

posted on Fri, 06/13/2008 - 4:07pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Writing in the New York Times, Donald McNeil puts todays food riots into an historical perspective.

posted on Tue, 06/17/2008 - 9:13am

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