With oil at $104/barrel, it seems only logical to invest in alternative sources of fuel for our cars in the United States. The increase in oil prices has led to the apparently beneficial act of diverting grain from food supply to ethanol production. Ethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting sugar components of plant materials, usually sugar and starch crops. In its purest form, ethanol can be used as fuel for cars, but it is most commonly used as a gasoline additive to increase octane and improve emissions from automobiles. As long as oil prices are above $80/barrel, grains, mainly corn, will be diverted from food consumption to ethanol production. It has even been announced that the percentage of ethanol in gasoline in the United States will shift from 10-15% by summer 2011 driving season. Without further investigation, ethanol seems to be another green or environmentally friendly innovation of the 21st century. However, with the use of ethanol has come an increase in food prices, poverty, deforestation and believe it or not, carbon dioxide emissions. In 2009, 19 billion gallons of ethanol were produced. What has this done for the planet and its populations? Nothing but harm.
Using grain for ethanol has no doubt been a key contributor to rising food prices. People in less developed countries spend an average of 60-70% of their income on food, while those in more developed countries spend only 10% of their income on food. Therefore, rising food prices affect the most poor the most quickly and deeply. We must recognize the marginalizing effect on of the very rich and very poor as exacerbated by ethanol production. The UN’s Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015 seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Third World. Trends were even reversing, until 2007, when food prices sky rocketed because of the emergence of ethanol in gasoline. By 2008, poverty had increased across East Asia, Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Adding ethanol to gasoline is a moral and political question. Should we choose to benefit a car owner whose income averages $30,000 annually over the two billion poorest people in the world who average an income of only $3,000 annually? It is obvious that big business, investors and lobbyists choose to benefit the car owner in order to make a larger profit, a practice that is entirely unethical. U.S. grain used to produce fuel for cars in 2009 would feed 340 million people for one year. Developed countries have an obligation to assist less developed countries; the people of the Third World have little opportunity to advance because of their focus on immediate needs for survival. Are we going to make food unattainable too through our addition to fossil fuel consumption, which drives ethanol production?
As if the catastrophic effects of ethanol on poverty is not enough, the production of the allegedly “ecologically friendly” fuel source only adds to the land paucity issue we face today in 2011. Clearing land to plant corn for ethanol means more land must be cleared to plant grain for food. With little to no new land accessible for farming, rainforests across the globe are being destroyed as a direct result of adding ethanol to gasoline. Forests in Brazil, Congo Basins, and Indonesia have become a prime target. Release of sequestered carbon, loss of plant and animal species, increased runoff and soil erosion are just a few consequences of deforestation, the “Biofuel carbon debt” as named by a 2008 study in Science conducted at the University of Minnesota. Not only does ethanol production contribute to land use issues, it contributes to water shortages, as well. It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain. If we are now farming more grain to compensate for both ethanol and food supply, we are contributing to aquifer depletion and falling water tables.
Ethanol must at least be an efficient source of energy to outweigh all of the above costs. When looking at resource efficiency, natural resource managers view the resource from extraction to production, namely “cradle to grave.” When applying the cradle to grave concept to ethanol, it can be concluded that ethanol is not in the least bit sustainable. Combining the total energy used for farm equipment, irrigation systems and transportation of crops to processing plants and later fuel terminals and retail pumps, ethanol seems hardly “green.” Not to mention the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides made from petroleum necessary to maximize yields in a Post-Green Revolution world. Cradle to grave analysis suggests it is time to put an end to ethanol. Even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were to be converted into ethanol, it would satisfy at most only 18% of U.S. automotive fuel needs.
The repercussions of ethanol production pose severe threats to both the environment and impoverished countries. Perhaps the most detrimental threat of all however, with Cinco de Mayo rapidly approaching, is the effect of ethanol on the market for tequila. As if rainforest clearing, substantial water use, skyrocketing food prices and trend-reversing poverty rates were not enough, ethanol is threatening margarita consumption. Farmers in Mexico are shifting from harvesting blue agave, a cactus-like plant from which tequila is made, to more profitable cash crops such as wheat and corn to keep up with ethanol production. Ending ethanol production for gasoline additives? I’ll drink to that.