I’ve been traveling in the American Corn Belt this past week, and wherever I go, people are talking about the promise of ethanol. . . . But as much as I’d like to have a greener fuel to power my car, I’m afraid corn-based ethanol is not that fuel.
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Absurd as it is, the rush to turn our corn surplus into ethanol appears unstoppable, and the corn belt, laboring under the weight of falling corn prices for the past several years, is celebrating the great good fortune of $3-a-gallon gas prices. We’re desperate for alternatives, and all that corn is waiting to be distilled. As corn prices rise (and the giddiness has already given them a bump), farmers will be tempted to produce yet more corn, which is not good news for the environment this whole deal is supposed to help. Why not? Because farmers will apply more nitrogen to boost yields (leading to more nitrogen pollution) and, since soy bean prices are down, they will be tempted to return to a “corn-on-corn” rotation. That is, rather than rotate their corn crops with soy beans (a legume that builds nitrogen in he soil), farmers will plant corn year after year, requiring still more synthetic nitrogen and doing long-term damage to the land.
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So why the stampede to make ethanol from corn? Because we have so much of it, and such a powerful lobby promoting its consumption. Ethanol is just the latest chapter in a long, sorry history of clever and profitable schemes to dispose of surplus corn: there was corn liquor in the 19th century; feedlot meat starting in the 1950’s and, since 1980, high fructose corn syrup. We grow more than 10 billion bushels of corn a year in this country, far more than we can possibly eat — though God knows we’re doing our best, bingeing on corn-based fast food and high fructose corn syrup till we’re fat and diabetic. We probably can’t eat much more of the stuff without exploding, so the corn lobby is targeting the next unsuspecting beast that might help chomp through the surplus: your car.
(By Michael Pollan, behind the NY Times pay wall.)