Will the Corn Supply Hold Out in an Ethanol Age? Let's say a trend toward making ethanol fuel for cars and industry really takes off. Will there be enough corn left over to feed people?
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Will the Corn Supply Hold Out in an Ethanol Age?

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Will the Corn Supply Hold Out in an Ethanol Age?

Will the Corn Supply Hold Out in an Ethanol Age?

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. You know, the heat wave is only half of the weather story this week. The Great Plains are suffering from drought also. And in some states that's been tough, even on crops that love heat. Like corn.

In North Dakota, for example, the corn is nowhere near as high as an elephant's eye. And in fact, some farmers say their corn is not worth harvesting. So America's corn crop is bound to be smaller this year and more expensive. And that's not good news for the consortium of 32 states that want to use corn to make cheap ethanol fuel to replace expensive gasoline. And as more states build ethanol plants and the corn harvest isn't as corny as Kansas in August, we'll have to choose between corn for food and corn for cars.

Lester Brown is an economist who's president and founder of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. The institute works to advance an economy that's environmentally friendly, a concept that Mr. Brown pioneered, so you'd think that he'd welcome states' enthusiasm for a fuel like ethanol. But he says he's worried about feed lots and service stations competing for corn, what that's going to mean for Americans and for the rest of the world, too. Mr. Brown's most recent book is Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet in Distress and a Civilization in Trouble. He was on our show last January and he's here back to talk about it in our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome back to Science Friday.

Mr. LESTER BROWN (Earth Policy Institute): Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: What worries you most about this rush toward ethanol?

Mr. BROWN: The original program set up in various countries, including the United States, have actually been under way for some time. The U.S. started the grain-to-ethanol program back in the late ‘70s after the two hikes in the world price of oil. And up until recently these biofuel programs - either ethanol or biodiesel - have been supported and driven by various incentives; for example, the 52 cent a gallon tax subsidy for ethanol production in the United States.

But as the price of oil has climbed over the last year or so, it has become hugely profitable to convert agricultural commodities into fuel, and since everything we eat essentially can be converted either into ethanol or biodeisel, we're seeing an emerging competition now between the ethanol distilleries in this country, for example, and feed lots and food processors. And this is quickly becoming worldwide because of the prominent position the U.S. plays in the world food economy.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. So are we going to have to choose, do you think, between food for the grocery store and food for our vehicle?

Mr. BROWN: Well…


Mr. BROWN: …the interesting thing is that now that the market has taken over and we're getting this stampede, almost a gold rush sort of mentality for investors wanting to build ethanol distilleries because they're so profitable, no one is really in control now. The market is driving the process, and in the state of Iowa, for example, which is our leading corn-producing state, if all of the distilleries now in production plus those under construction and in the planning stages are completed it will take the entire corn harvest of Iowa just to operate them.

And in South Dakota, for example - you were mentioning North Dakota a minute ago - but the South Dakota corn crop has also been decimated by the intense heat and drought in that part of the Great Plains. South Dakota's corn crop is already - more than half of it - going into ethanol production, and with an unusually poor harvest this year most of it might be going into ethanol production.

Now, I don't think most people realize how much grain it takes to run an automobile, but the grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV take with ethanol will feed one person for a year. So if we're looking at filling the tank every two weeks or so, then we're looking at one SUV consuming the grain in the form of ethanol that would feed 26 people for a year. So it doesn't take a lot of ethanol production, it doesn't take a lot of cars running on ethanol before you really begin to encroach on the food supply.

FLATOW: Are you arguing then for doing away with ethanol and going some other fuel or for finding a different feed stock for the ethanol?

Mr. BROWN: Two or three things. I'm not saying let's close down the ethanol distilleries. What I am suggesting is that we need to take inventory. Someone needs to look at the number of ethanol distilleries being built and being planned in this country and see how their demands relate to the supply.

The second thing is that our best bet with ethanol is probably going to come with cellulosic materials like switch grass or some agricultural residues or wood chips or what have you. And that will not compete directly with the food supply.

But the other alternative that I think is most exciting in this country, for example, is to move toward plug-in hybrids. That is, if you take a car like a Toyota Prius, which is most widely sold gas/electric hybrid, and if you add a second storage battery and a plug-in capacity, then we can do most of our short-distance driving - commuting, grocery shopping and so forth - almost entirely with electricity. And the idea that we now have the technologies and an abundance of wind resources that would permit us to run our cars on - largely on wind energy is I think very exciting. Especially when you realize that the costs of the wind electricity equivalent of a gallon of gasoline is less than a dollar a gallon.

FLATOW: Now, we did a show just a couple of weeks ago in which we had farmers from Kansas who are installing - some of them are installing wind turbines as fast as they could and they said, you know, I can put up so many wind turbines but then they just sit there and I have no way of getting the electricity back to the grid. And we'll put in as many as we could. You know?

Mr. BROWN: This is one of the things that we need to do. There is general agreement after the blackout that was three summers ago here on the East Coast that we need not only to strengthen our grids at the local level but to integrate them into a strong national grid, so it becomes much easier to move electricity around. And the farmers in Kansas are quite right. There are no - I mean a large wind farm can generate as much electricity as a nuclear power plant, so you really do need some heavy-duty transmission equipment, and you're not going to find that in place in most parts of the Great Plains, for example, where much of the country's wind resources are the strongest.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get some phone calls in. Let's go to John in Salt Lake. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me on. I love your show. I have a question about the farm subsidies, and one of my questions is, how much farmland is not being developed and being paid out of farm subsidies? And the next question, would that have an impact, or what kind of effect would that have on the capability to produce ethanol and not take away from the food product?

Mr. BROWN: Most people don't know it, but the so-called commodity set-aside program, where farmers who grow corn or wheat or what have you were paid not to produce on part of their land, in order to control supply, was actually phased out in 1995. The only program we have now is the Conservation Reserve Program, where farmers are paid to plant their highly erodable land either to grass or to trees. And some of that could be brought back into production if it were managed properly.

But there's not a huge amount of land now set aside that's ready to come back into production any time we want it. And when we look at the amount of land and grain it would take to make an important contribution on the fuel front, it's enormous.

For example, if we were to convert our entire grain harvest in the United States into ethanol to run cars, it would supply something like 16 percent of our total fuel needs. So there are real limits on how far we can go in this direction, but almost no limits on how far we can go with the plug-in hybrids and wind-generated…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BROWN: …electricity.

FLATOW: Right. We were up in Syracuse, New York a few months ago and the state of New York was working on a project using cellulosic ethanol. It has not matured yet to where it's ready to go yet, but they were getting ready and experimenting with a different kind of crop that's not corn. We're talking about willow trees.

And they said a willow tree will grow from a quarter inch sapling to a 30-foot tree in three years and has a return on, you know, has a return of 14-to-1 on the amount of energy you put into it to the amount of alcohol energy you can get out of it.

Could it not just be a question also not of the kind of crops we'd be growing for ethanol? Why not grow more, better productive crops than corn?

Mr. BROWN: That's a good point. The reason corn has become so popular is because it's there and we're producing it in huge quantities, and there's strong support from farmers to convert part of that crop into ethanol. But the willow trees and the fast-growing hybrid poplars are two of the strongest candidates for cellulosic ethanol production, along with switch grass, which is relatively high yielding.

The principal constraint now is that we're probably at least five years away from technologies to convert either willow trees or switch grass into ethanol on an economically competitive basis.

FLATOW: So you're saying in that time we could make use of wind energy and harness that easier?

Mr. BROWN: We could. And wind is cheaper. There will be no source of ethanol, even cellulosic ethanol, that'll be able to compete with the equivalent with a dollar a gallon wind energy.

FLATOW: But you need to create that infrastructure. Can you create an infrastructure that quickly?

Mr. BROWN: If we decide we want to we can. I would remind you that we restructured the entire U.S. industrial economy in 1942 in a matter of months as we geared up for World War II. So it is possible to do it if we give it priority.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Of course, we hear about Brazil's economy, which is almost totally now run on ethanol from sugarcane. What's wrong with what they've done?

Mr. BROWN: Well, Brazil has the advantage that sugarcane is one of the most energy efficient sources of ethanol; has the great advantage in that when the sugar cane goes to the sugar mill it is squeezed, crushed, and the syrup that comes out we use to make the sugar. But you have this fibrous residue left in large quantities.

And what the Brazilians do is use that fibrous residue to fuel the ethanol distilleries, and the result is that the return on energy input is very high. For each unit of energy invested, you get about eight units of energy out in the form of ethanol.

So if you're going to produce ethanol from a food crop, then sugar cane is the most efficient. I would, however, point out that since Brazil is the world's largest producer and exporter of ethanol - I'm sorry - of sugar, and is now converting half of its crop into ethanol, it has contributed to a doubling of world sugar prices over the last year and a half or so.

What we're now looking at, at the global level, as more and more countries build ethanol distilleries and biodiesel refineries, is - we're looking at direct competition between the 800 million people in the world who own automobiles, and the two billion poorest people in the world who are already spending half or more of their income on food.

And I don't' think the world has yet quite realized what's happening and how quickly it's unfolding. But this is an epic struggle that's looming here, and we don't really have any sort of mediating body to monitor and to negotiate the relationship between cars and people and competing for the same corn, wheat, rice, soybean, sugar cane, etc.

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Lester Brown, author of the most recent book, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing the Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, now out sort of in a second edition. 1-800-989-8255.

I got a note from your Web page actually in response to your writings from someone who said that there's a byproduct from ethanol. It's dried, distilled grain in animal feed for cows, pigs and poultry. This is no food versus energy argument. I guess that he was making, or she was making the argument that there's a byproduct of making the ethanol that you can still feed to animals.

Mr. BROWN: There is, and it amounts to about a third of the original grain that used. That is, about two-thirds ends up as alcohol and the rest is left in what is called distiller's grain. And that can and is being fed to cattle. So it's not a total loss, but you do lose two-thirds of the food value of the corn when you convert it into ethanol.

FLATOW: You don't hear many people talking about energy conservation these days, where probably that could make the most immediate impact.

Mr. BROWN: No question. I mentioned earlier that if we converted our entire grain harvest into ethanol, it would cover only about 16 percent of our automotive fuel needs. There is an alternative, and that is to raise fuel efficiency standards in automobiles by, say, 20 percent.

If we did that, we would save the equivalent of all the ethanol that we would produce if we used our entire grain harvest for that purpose, and do it at a fraction of the cost.

FLATOW: I can never understand why the unions, the Detroit unions, along with the carmakers, were resistant making these small, more fuel-efficient cars, considering now that they may not have too many jobs - too many jobs left in the future by going the way they have been going.

Mr. BROWN: It's amazing to see how Japanese companies like Toyota have been so successful in capturing a growing share of the U.S. market for cars, which is, for them, an alien culture. I mean they are originally Japanese companies, whereas the U.S. companies have been here now for nearly a century and know the market and so forth, and yet they're losing badly in this race with the Japanese car manufacturers.

FLATOW: Lester, I have about 30 seconds left. What would be the greatest first step you think we should be doing now?

Mr. BROWN: I think the first thing we need to do is for the administration to quickly do a tally of how many ethanol distilleries are in operation, under construction and in the planning stage, and then see how much grain that's going to take.

The big risk is that we'll be using so much grain for cars in this country that there won't be enough for the rest of world, and the world depends heavily on us. So this competition between food and fuel is becoming very real, and we're not - the world is simply not prepared for it.

FLATOW: Okay. You got the word and the last few seconds. Lester Brown, an economist, president and founder of Earth Policy Institute in Washington, also author of Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization In Trouble. Thank you for taking time to be with us today, Lester. Good to see you.

Mr. BROWN: Ira, it's been a delight.

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