Farming for Ethanol Would Have Serious Consequences for Forests, Food Production

Published July 1, 2006

The enthusiasm for ethanol as a fuel additive may be warranted in chemical terms, but it has serious agricultural consequences we must address before pursuing this alternative.

To make ethanol a significant U.S. fuel source will require clearing a tremendous amount of forestland and turning it into farms. Supplying just 10 percent of our auto fuel with domestically produced ethanol right now would require us to burn up 55 percent of the corn crop currently being produced on 78 million high-yield U.S. acres.

From an economic standpoint, I believe America’s current corn land is best employed in supplying corn flakes, tacos, and chicken feed for the world’s families. The United States sold a record crop last year, mostly for food and feed. The planet is still adding people, with another 2 billion or so due to arrive in the next few decades. Six billion people will be rich enough to eat well, instead of 1.5 billion. Another billion families will add a carnivorous pet cat or dog. As a result, feed will continue to be worth more in the world market than ethanol.

Food Demand Rising

Global demand for farm products will more than double during the next 40 years. We’re already farming about 38 percent of the planet’s land area, including most of the land good enough to farm sustainably.

The move to ethanol means we must shift more of our increasingly scarce prime farmland to fuel crops when global food and feed demand are rising at least as rapidly as crop yields. This is a particularly acute concern given that the net energy gain from corn-based ethanol over the corn’s fuel and fertilizer requirements is only about 25 percent.

In addition, we must discount for the one-third fewer BTUs per gallon in ethanol as opposed to gasoline. That’s why the United States has to produce six gallons of corn ethanol to displace 1 gallon of gasoline imports.

Land Requirements Huge

America has some 38 million acres of land in the Conservation Reserve, but little of it gets enough moisture to grow corn. It could grow switchgrass, which produces twice as much biomass per acre as corn. However, we don’t yet have enzymes that can cost-effectively turn switchgrass into ethanol.

Genetic engineers are making rapid progress on more aggressive enzymes for cellulose–but when we start to produce ethanol from switchgrass and wood chips, the $40 million corn ethanol plants will sit idle.

We could clear forests to create additional farmland, but that land produces significantly less cornstarch per acre than does the high-quality land where we currently grow corn. The forestland is too steep, too rocky, too wet, or too “something,” or it would already have been cleared for crops. The yield penalty on former forestland would certainly be severe.

We will either have to clear a large amount of forestland to grow corn for ethanol or we will be forced to give up the U.S. feed and meat exports dependent on current farm utilization and the profits they have been earning.

Tariff Cuts, Trade Preferable

We could avoid all this trouble by pushing the World Trade Organization to liberalize farm trade. American farmers could then use their land and crucially valuable infrastructure to double their exports in a decade, mainly by exporting feed, meat, and pet food to Asia’s rapidly growing economies. American farmers could actually boost profits in Asia, instead of hoping daily that the government ethanol subsidy doesn’t dry up.

Moreover, if we really need ethanol to break the power of OPEC, why not import low-cost ethanol from Brazil? We currently have a 2.5 percent tariff on ethanol plus a surcharge of 54 cents per gallon. Cut out the tariff and Brazil would be planting more sugarcane for ethanol exports by next year.

That is where the “spare” cropland in the world is, Brazil, where another 60 million hectares of acid savannah could be plowed without much loss of biodiversity, and 100 million hectares of pasture could be shifted to crops if the U.S. ethanol subsidy were sent down there to finance the roads they don’t have yet–a much better investment of our money.

Brazil is warm and wet enough to grow rain-fed sugar cane, which currently produces ethanol three times more productively than a cornfield can. The cane yields twice as much, needs only half as much fertilizer, and uses no coal or natural gas for processing.

Warming Fears Motivate

We should also consider why there is such a huge, immediate push for corn ethanol in the United States. The world has lots of fossil fuels, tar sands, and uranium with which to supply energy at lower real costs.

The loudest cry for ending our utilization of petroleum products tends to come from global warming alarmists. But it is by no means clear that their assertions justify an abandonment of cheap and affordable petroleum-based energy products.

For 30 years, the developed nations have been assuming the Modern Warming is being caused by human-emitted carbon dioxide (CO2). But there’s no evidence for manmade warming except some unverified computer projections, largely dependent on the guesstimates and biases of the input data.

According to alarmist global warming theory, manmade warming should have started when our CO2 emissions ramped up–about 1940–and trended strongly upward ever since. Instead, the warming started about 1850 and mostly occurred before 1940. From 1940 to 1975, temperatures went down a bit. None of that fits the manmade-CO2 hypothesis.

Warming Is Natural Cycle

On the other hand, ice cores from both Greenland and the Antarctic show a moderate, natural 1,500-year cycle that raises temperatures in New York 2º C above the long-term mean for 700 years or so and then drops them 2º below the mean for a comparable period. The ice cores show 300 of these natural warmings in the past 500,000 years.

We’ve also found evidence of the 1,500-year cycle in the seabed sediments of five oceans, in 3,000 deep boreholes around the world, in ancient tree rings living and preserved around the northern hemisphere, in the advances and retreats of glaciers worldwide, and in cave stalagmites from every continent plus New Zealand.

The North American pollen database shows nine complete reorganizations of this continent’s trees and plants in the past 14,000 years, or one every 1,650 years. In Ontario, warmth-loving beech trees gradually gave way to oaks and then to cold-tolerant pine trees as the Medieval Warming shifted into the Little Ice Age. Now the oak trees are coming back, and the beech trees are waiting their turn.

That is, unless we clear the forests for ethanol.

Dennis Avery ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Global Food Issues.