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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

In Defense Of…Ethanol and its many opportunities: Reconsidering things that generally get a raw deal at Carleton

< the last months, food prices have soared and people everywhere from Egypt to Indonesia have rioted in hunger and protest. In the 121 poorest countries hunger has reached crisis levels. More Americans will need food stamps this year than ever before. Increased demand in developing nations is mostly to blame for scarce supplies of grain—people in, for example, China and India are eating more meat, and feeding animals grain is far less efficient than feeding humans (many vegetarians choose not to eat meat for these reasons). We, America, can’t do much about that. After all, we can hardly tell others to forgo meat when we eat so much. So what can we do?

Rethink ethanol. Ethanol is biofuel made from corn. You can fill up your car with an 85/15% ethanol/gasoline mixture in Northfield (it’s especially popular in the Midwest, home of corn). Congress subsidized and encouraged production of ethanol just last winter. The goal was to produce enough ethanol by 2015 to replace 10 percent of our motor fuel. As a result of this and previous subsidies, ethanol has replaced food as the destination of much American corn. The portion of total U.S. corn plantings used for ethanol is expected to increase to 22 percent this year, up from 17 percent last year, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Ethanol has been touted as a cure-all replacement for fossil fuels. It is said to be environmentally
friendly and a replacement for much foreign oil. This is partly true. Ethanol gives off fewer direct emissions than gasoline and does directly replace foreign oil in cars. But when you add in the carbon costs of clearing new fields (which releases ground-trapped carbon into the atmosphere) and growing new crops (which require a lot of fertilizer and pesticide, both made from oil), ethanol turns out to be more harmful than just burning gas. “When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” says Timothy Searchinger, a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.” This serves to remind us that we must consider all ramifications of our actions and that the necessity of acting swiftly to prevent climate change shouldn’t come at the cost of acting foolishly.

No doubt reversing ethanol won’t go down well in Iowa, or for that matter, Minnesota (as of last year the state had 17 ethanol plants with a combined capacity of 680 million gallons a year). And switching our corn production back to food couldn’t happen immediately and so wouldn’t affect current grain prices. But the international demand causing higher prices isn’t going away; indeed it will only get grow. And due to heavy spring rain, corn planting in America has been delayed. Economists fear a drought (the Midwest is overdue). If this were to happen, prices would grow even higher and the food shortage even more acute. All of this to say, again, it’s time to rethink ethanol.

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