Ethanolic corn realities

April 2011

Corn Field
Corn field in Argentina
by Irargerich on Flickr
Green alternative? Or expensive mistake? Biofuels are not, it seems, going to carry on where fossil fuels left off.

Biofuels are one of the fastest growing industries.

The biofuels sector is attracting high levels of investment from venture capitalists. Its massive growth is being stimulated by funding from such agencies as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and carbon emissions trading markets. Add to this that billions of dollars are being poured into biofuel research by industry, in particular Big Oil, Big Biotech and their associates in the car and energy business.

The first generation biofuel is ethanol produced from corn. US subsidies amounting to £7.7 billion in 2009 have driven 41 percent of the American corn crop and 15 percent of the global corn crop into combustion engines. Ethanol sales continue to climb in the US and are expected to reach nearly 4 billion gallons (53 billion litres) in 2011, about 8 per cent of the country's total fuel consumption. Federal law requires that ethanol production in the USA shall climb to 35 billion gallons per year by 2022.

In the early days, even environmentalists welcomed the advent of biofuels as an alternative to oil. However, the shiny image of biofuels as a 'green' answer to peak oil and our energy needs of the future, is fast becoming tarnished. And the problems are inherent and insurmountable.

At the end of 2010, the US politician most influential in promoting the ethanolic corn initiative, Al Gore, dropped a bombshell. He said “First generation ethanol I think was a mistake”. It seem the realities of ethanolic corn finally dawned on him: the net energy gain is dismal, and there is no doubt that the diversion of food into cars contributed significantly to the recent world food price crisis.

Gore in remarkably candid about why he pushed through such a bad policy in the first place: “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the (interests of) farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the State of Iowa because I was about to run for president.” After that first mistake, he admits to losing control because “It's hard once such a programme is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.” The combination of narrow-vision and political ambition put in motion a juggernaut which couldn't be stopped once the vested interests of Big Business muscled in on the act.

The people best placed to rationalise the whole biofuel escapade are the university academics. Unfortunately their reality is a research agenda shaped by the biofuels industry. Like the weapons-, tobacco-, pharmaceutical-, and biotech-industries before it, the biofuels industry is quietly funding the research projects it wants funded, discouraging criticism of its pet, and wangling its way onto key university decision-making bodies.

The result is a diversion of scientific resources away from the more important subject areas affected by peak oil, such as research into food crops, energy conservation, improved transportation and urban planning.

The bigger reality is that biofuels have a large indirect carbon footprint, and have dire implications for water quality and availability, while feeding food to cars while millions of poor children are dying of hunger-related causes is even less ethical than feeding food to animals to feed the wealthy.

There are also some sinister aspects to the development of biofuels. Our failing fossil fuel economy is transforming into a bio-economy in which “Plants, trees and forests are the new oil fields. They're above the ground and they're easy to grab.” (ETC Group) But to get them, as small farmers in developing countries are finding to their cost, you have to get the ground. In some areas land expropriation has been violent and has been achieved by false promises and trickery: in Honduras, six farmers were massacred in their fields by armed security forces employed by the biofuel company, Dinant; in Indonesia, villagers describe how they arrived at their land one morning to find all their crop trees and plants had been destroyed.

Ethanolic corn has always been based on GM pest- and herbicide-resistant varieties, both of which have a dubious safety profile. But corn grown specially for ethanol production is about to kick off another entirely new GM era.

The US has just approved a transgenic corn designed to digest itself and make the whole ethanol production process quicker and cheaper. 'Energen' GM corn contains a gene copied from a marine microbe. The novel gene generates amylase enzyme which breaks starch down into sugar. At present this enzyme must be added into the mix by ethanol manufacturers as the first stage in the process, but the transgenic corn will do this for itself to, hopefully, making the wh9le process somewhat less inefficient.

As the GM StarLink and Bt maize contaminations of 200-2004 have warned us, Enogen will end up in your food. Even the North American Millers' Association, a food industry trade body, is warning against the introduction of this GM corn. It's prediction of “crumbly corn chips, soggy cereal, loaves of bred with soggy centers and corn dogs with inadequate coating” may only be the beginning of the problems.

The amylase enzyme produced by Energen is heat-resistant and acid-tolerant making it very stable and a prime allergen suspect. But, because Energen is not a food, safety testing will be minimal. Some level of the enzyme will end up in our gut where it could negatively impact our digestion and nutrition, and large quantities will reach the soil and wider ecosystem where it will wreak havoc with carbon cycling. Farmers prospecting for ethanolic gold stand to lose both their soil and their market.

For more in depth information, read up on how 'Biofuels Waste Energy to Produce' and all about 'Biofuels and World Hunger'.

  • Biofuels Waste Energy to Produce, Institute of Science in Society Report, 6.12.10
  • Biofuels and World Hunger, Institute of Science in Society Report, 3.11.19
  • Annie Bird, World Bank-Funded Biofuel Crop Massacres Six Hondurans, Rights Action, New Zealand, 22.11.10
  • Earth grab: The rush to make agriculture fuel the global economy, Food Secure Canada, 22.11.10
  • Suzanne Bohan, Big Oil funds biofuels R&D / US corn ethanol “was not a good policy” - Gore, Contra Costa Times, 21/22.11.10
  • Jess Leber, Al Gore: I Used To Be A Cornaholic,, 23.11.10
  • Gerard Wynn, U.S. Corn ethanol “was not a good policy” - Gore, Reuters, 22.11.10
  • Andrew Pollack. U.S. Approves Corn Modified for Ethanol, New York Times, 11.02.11
  • Sean Poulter, GM in your cornflakes: Food fears as U.S. approve new genetically engineered maize, Daily Mail, 21.02.11
  • World's First Genetically Engineered Biofuels Corn threatens Contamination of Food-Grade Corn, True Food Now, 11.02.11
  • John Collins Rudolf, Corn Belt Senators Defend Ethanol Subsidies, New York Times, 2.12.10
  • Jeff Tollefson, Biofuel subsidy sees limited extension in the S tax bill as opposition grows, Nature, 20.12.10

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