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Ethanol’s Dissonant Sounds: A Dirge for the Commons

August 2007

I recently traveled to Iowa to visit an ethanol plant. Over the din of the machinery, here are the sounds that I heard:

Glub, glub. The plant consumes over a million kilos of corn per day. That’s good news for area farmers especially as the price has almost doubled due to high demand. The bad news is that our current agricultural system is petroleum-soaked. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers, machinery, irrigation pumps, and grain transport all depend on the stuff. Sustainable Table reports that each acre of corn, just in chemical pesticides and fertilizers, requires 5.5 gallons of petroleum.

Glub, glub. The plant uses 275 tons of coal a day, trucked down from Wyoming. Five rail cars, powered by diesel engines, head east with the finished ethanol each day.

Shluurrp. The plant uses 600,000 gallons of water every day to produce 150,000 gallons of ethanol. This water figure doesn’t account for pumped irrigation water (requiring petroleum) during corn cultivation. I was surprised to hear one Des Moines resident worried about this unsustainable water use (and the fact that his truck got worse mileage with ethanol) describe the ethanol industry as a “hoax”. Seemed kind of unpatriotic.

Glub, glub. Yet another trip to the supermarket for imported food. Iowa was once a leader in food production and processing. Today 86% of Iowan food is brought in from out of state. That will increase as more land is put into corn production for ethanol, displacing food production for fuel production. Even before ethanol plants sucked up area corn, corn was principally used for animal feed, not human food. Iowa’s smaller farms, which might have produced a variety of food crops for local markets – from vegetables to grains – have declined dramatically in number over the past decades.

Kachiing. The great majority of corn grown in Iowa is genetically modified and is grown using an expensive suite of compatible fertilizers and pesticides – for example, Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Corn. The high price of these inputs (and high profits to agribusinesses) is one reason a great many farmers are in debt or have lost their farms to highly capitalized and concentrated operations.

Kachiing. The U.S. Farm Bill (currently being marked up, due to be voted on this fall) encourages overproduction of corn (the biomass that this and most U.S. plants use to create ethanol) through subsidies financed by taxpayer monies. A small number of large farms reap the vast majority of these subsidies. There are proposals in the upcoming Farm Bill to cap subsidy payments.  (See for the NFFC’s Food From Family Farms act, crafted by family farmers to ensure fair prices for family farmers, safe and healthy food,and vibrant,  environmentally sound rural communities here and around the world.)

Kachiing. That same Farm Bill includes an Energy Title which offers cheap financing for ethanol plants with taxpayer monies.

Ribbit, ribbit croaakazine. The ethanol boom threatens to bring e ven more land into corn production – some that’s currently set aside for ecosystem conservation – cultivated with chemical techniques. Widespread pesticide use of such common products as Atrazine (produced by the Swiss company Syngenta – not approved for sale in Europe, but widely used in the U.S.) has been shown to produce reproductive problems in frogs and farmworkers.

Whir, whir, drip. Air conditioners of the world unite! The carbon footprint of the ethanol production and subsequent combustion of the ethanol is pretty darn big. The plant representatives were unable to present an overall energy balance sheet for the plant. Not surprisingly, we didn’t dig into questions about reducing consumption and the sustainability of a form of economic growth that doesn’t have to clean up its messes.

It wasn’t all bad news. I heard a happy hum of workers proud of their plant. The plant is community-owned and has returned double digit dividends to its local share holders. Children of farmers that might otherwise have left Iowa, have gone to school for chemical engineering and stuck around to work in the ethanol plants.

Yet, with so many challenges accompanying ethanol expansion – and there’s still much more to tell about environmental, labor, and landlessness problems emerging internationally in places such as in Brazil due to sugar cane expansion for ethanol–caution would seem to be a sensible route to take.

Of course caution isn’t something that comes naturally to the U.S – they say it thwarts innovation, fun and profit. But hell, we could practice and we might just get good at it. One sensible proposal–which contradicts a big thrust of the upcoming Farm Bill–calls for a moratorium on biofuels expansion until we can put useful regulations in place.

If our global commons could speak–and maybe they do but we just can’t hear them over their groans of pain–I think they’d like that proposal.

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