Ethanol has long been promoted (especially by farm state Senators) as a solution to greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandated that 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel be blended into gasoline by 2012. Two years later it increased this amount to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Ethanol – the most common alternative fuel – is now blended into 70% of the nation’s gas.

So what’s the benefit? The U.S. Department of Energy says that ethanol production and use will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 52%, compared to gasoline production and use.

But the list of ethanol cons – or “corns,” if you will – is lengthy. It includes:

–       Ethanol is harming the meat, egg and dairy industries by taking up huge amounts of the country’s corn supply (now 40%) thereby driving up the cost of the grain used to feed livestock, and in turn upping the cost of commodities that come from animals.  The end of 2011 saw the end of the government’s $5 billion in annual subsidies to the ethanol industry, but its alternative fuel requirement remains the same, meaning that if corn needs to be rationed, ethanol producers may be exempt from this rationing, putting more of a burden on meat producers, who will have to reduce the amount of animals they raise and slaughter, which will in turn make meat more expensive for consumers.

–       Ethanol uses up more energy than it produces. A study out of the University of California Berkley and Cornell University found that producing a liter of ethanol requires 29% more fossil fuel energy than the ethanol energy it produces. And ethanol may not even be more efficient than gasoline. It takes an estimated 2.2 billion gallons in oil equivalents to produce 1.7 billion gallons of ethanol, according to a 2001 article from Cornell University.

–       Ethanol production takes up large amounts of land, irrigation water and other resources. It takes 2.69 kg of corn grain to produce 1 liter of ethanol. In 2005, to produce the 10.6 billion gallons of ethanol used in the United States, approximately 1,335,000 acres of land were needed.

–       Gas with ethanol is harder on a car’s engine than pure gasoline, and cars that use ethanol mixes are less fuel-efficient.

–       For the first time in 40 years, last year the U. S. was no longer the world’s biggest corn exporter, as more and more corn goes to domestic ethanol production.

–       There are children starving in Africa – actually. In a world where the food supply is becoming an increasing problem (35% of deaths of children under 5 are due to malnutrition), corn is one of the cereal grains that make up 80 percent of what the world eats, and is therefore essential to combatting global hunger. Reducing corn exports reduces the amount of the grain available to other countries.

Now, a new study by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Meat Animal Research Center has pointed out yet another drawback of an ethanol byproduct, wet distillers grains with solubles (WDGS), could also be harmful to public health.

According to the study, with the catchy title “Impact of Reducing the Level of Wet Distillers Grains Fed to Cattle Prior to Harvest on Prevalence and Levels of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Feces and on Hides,” found that cattle fed finishing diets with WDGS, as opposed to a predominantly corn diet, have been shown to harbor increased Escherichia coli O157:H7 populations in the feces and on the hides.

The problems with ethanol appear many and the benefits few, and more importantly, it appears to be downright dangerous.

  • Minkpuppy

    Corn production is also very hard on the soil. The plants strip the topsoil of vital nitrogen and nutrients, requiring the application of anhydrous ammonia and various fertilizers to replenish what it is taken out. These fertilizers run off into the rivers, streams and water table and the excess nitrogen in the water can cause toxic algae blooms that kill aquatic life. My basic agronomy professor told my class that corn is the absolute worst thing you could do to Iowa topsoil and I’m convinced he was correct. Yet we still grow corn. Why?

    The last time I visited my Iowa family members during the summer, I was shocked to see every square inch of field space covered in corn–literally fence row to fence row. The plants and rows were planted so close together that you couldn’t see daylight once you got out in the field. I don’t recall it being like that when I was a kid–the push for more corn for more ethanol has created that situation. Ethanol is not a magic bullet–if anything, we’re destroying our good crop land in an attempt to “fix” something else. Ugh.

  • Maynard T. Krebbs

    Iowans should be growing hemp, not corn. Hemp is held in higher esteem by foodie wingnuts who think they know more about agriculture than farmers and agronomists do. You know the type – the ones who whine about soil depletion but who never wonder how crops just keep getting better and bigger and more productive – the ones who whine about aquatic algal blooms and flush their own waste into inadequate sewage facilities and ultimately into lakes and rivers. You know the type. A couple million acres of hemp, more or less – that couldn’t do any harm could it? Problem solved, let’s blaze another one, man. Hemp is definitely the answer!

  • This study is consistent with numerous others and even if you lower the amount for the last 50 days you still have more shedding on the lot from the cattle that are still on the high distillers grain diets.
    Another downside of distillers grains is the use of antibiotics in ethanol production (they keep bacteria from competing with the yeast) which results in biologically active levels of antibiotics in the distillers grains that are then fed to cattle. This is totally inconsistent with FDA’s current policy on antibiotics but yet they ignore this source of massive feeding of unregulated antibiotics to animals.
    Animal feeds are FDA’s responsibility and they have completely dropped the ball on this one looking the other way on the antibiotics for decades and ignoring the growing evidence that feeding these contributes to the major pathogen associated with beef.
    The sad thing is the likelihood that FDA actually will do anything on this is very low given the power of the ag lobby.

  • Minkpuppy

    Hmmm…interesting how ugly some people get when the status quo is challenged especially when it comes to King Corn.

    So you’re saying a respected agronomist and professor doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to the effects of corn agriculture on the soil and environment as a whole? Hmmm,….. maybe your gripe ought to be with ISU for teaching it’s ag students such obviously untrue propaganda! Thank you so much for enlightening me! I obviously wasted my money on my ag degree from such a prestigious ag college! I should demand my money back because they must have given me the water-downed ag industry kool-aid while I was there. Where’s my lawyer?

    I attended Iowa State University which is where I learned how corn strips the soil of nutrients and it’s relatively poor value as human food. It lacks lysine but now thanks to companies like Monsanto we have genetically engineered high lysine corn. Just don’t have the misfortune of growing your corn next to theirs cuz they might sue you if some of their genes drift into your field.

    I have never “consumed” hemp in the form Maynard implies, so I’d love to know where this ignorant assumption comes from.

    Just keep burying your head in the sand and naively believe all farmers are conscientous stewards of the environment regardless of how big they are.

    Let’s just ignore the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the fact that Chesapeke Bay is a dead bay due to the use of farm chemicals and manure that runs off into the rivers and eventually into the ocean. It’s all a lie because all farmers protect the environment!! Only Potheads believe that farming is bad and all must be organic!! Who cares about scientific research! It’s all a communist plot to destroy the American way of life!!!!

    Give me a effing break!!!!! I know and have seen from experience that for every farmer that truly believes in protecting the environment like I do, there’s a neighbor down the road who doesn’t give a rat’s pattootie and dumps way more chemical and fertilizers on the fields than he should just so he can make more money.

    I’m hardly a foodie wingnut or a Michael Pollan fan (totally disagree on a lot of stuff he says).

    I’m a realist.

    Corn as it is currently grown is unsustainable, especially when some farmers have started to abandon smart practices like crop rotation with nitrogen fixing crops such as soybeans and alfalfa. The push for ethanol is increasing feed costs for all livestock producers and now they’re being forced to feed the by-products of that industry to their cattle which is apparently causing even more problems for the people that want to consume the meat.

    Corn should never be the sole component of a cattle diet. They need roughage. Corn has to be added carefully and slowly to their diet so the rumen pH has a chance to adjust. When the grain content of a ruminant diet is too high, the livers become abcessed and the cattle don’t perform well. Drugs to prevent liver abcesses are big money to Big Pharma and they regularly sent employees to monitor the abcessed livers at the slaughter plants as part of their research. I inspected and condemned those livers while those pharmaceutical company workers watched. Spend a little time in the slaughter house and see for yourself what the insides of those cows look like after being fed a ration that was “too hot”. Abcesses everywhere and yet somehow I should be convinced that feeding all grain to a ruminant is OK? Wrong answer!

    WDGS are even rougher on rumen pH and seem to be creating an ideal environment for E. coli 0157:H7 to flourish. It’s just one example of why ethanol’s costs far outweigh it’s benefits. Mr. Marler did a pretty good job listing the others.

    I don’t object to the use of grain per se, I just don’t think it’s being utilized properly in ruminant diets, it’s too hard on the soil, it sucks as a source of ethanol, and it’s lousy as human food. Too much corn is just not good for the animals (or people) but our current system seems to be stuck in the idea that feeding strictly corn to livestock is the only cheap way to produce meat from cows. Oh yeah and let’s not forget that cows utilize corn SO much better than humans which just excuses all the bad things about it. I quit drinking that koolaid years ago when I started to think and research for myself.

    Higher beef prices due to expensive feed aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The market will adjust and stabilize like it always does. Smaller cattle aren’t necessarily bad either. Americans have been trained to think that an 8 oz steak is too small when it’s actually 2-3x more than we need to eat in one serving.

    We can do better in the way we grow crops, what we grow and what we feed to our animals. Finally, researchers are addressing what needs to be done to prevent foodborne pathogens in the animals before they ever reach the slaughter house. How they are fed and raised is a big part of it. Farmers need to adapt their thinking and methods or be left behind. King Corn needs to wake up and smell the coffee if it wants to survive.

  • Farmer with a Dell

    So, rich Iowa soils are teetering on their last legs? Depleted from growing all that nasty corn? Really?
    Corn is just a bad plant and a bad idea? Corn is unsustainable, even though it has been grown in the Americas for centuries? Now, suddenly it is causing the sky to fall? Iowa State University is now recommending corn culture be eliminated? Really?
    Corn is just plain bad for people? People like Incas and Aztecs and 5 or 6 generations of Americans in the deep south subsisting on corn meal and corn-fed pork, deadly for those people too? Cortez destroyed the Indians of Central America, not corn. And it was tobacco in the deep south that was legendary for depleting the soil. But corn is just an unfit food for humans? Really?
    Cattle feeding isn’t up to your naive standards, either? Do they teach that at ISU, too, while they are serving up the sermon of gloom and doom anti-agriculture Koolaid? Is every ISU grad some kind of cattle expert by default? Really?
    Go back to poking and sniffing meat in some isolated dark corner of the universe. Leave the real farming to professionals who have a world of people to feed, professionals who have been farming successfully and sustainably for a couple of centuries. Growing plants and animals that have been sustained and improved for many, many centuries. Come back and tell us how to farm when you have something besides angry twisted internet cult-speak to offer. Michael Pollan has brainwashed you without you even recognizing it — he’s a very clever journalism professor…but certainly not a farmer or agriculture scientist. Just another scribe who has stumbled upon a gold mine selling pop science books to over-privileged industry-hating yuppy know-it-alls. God help us all.

  • Minkpuppy

    And that’s the problem with the world today. Individuals that can’t see beyond their own little world to see the consequences of their actions and only pick and choose what they want to hear. So they attack people without knowing a damn thing about them or where they come from.
    I’m brainwashed by Pollan? How’s this for a shocker? THIS ISU PROF WAS TEACHING THIS ABOUT CORN IN THE LATE 1980’S! AND HE WAS FROM MEXICO! The horror!!!!!!
    I’m not anti-agriculture or farming but Dammit! I’ve been involved in agriculture all my life. The meat industry wouldn’t exist without agriculture. How dare you assume I’m naive? Just because it doesn’t tote the party line? CHanges don’t happen unless someone rocks the boat and I”m all for it these days. Last i checked rural communities aren’t doing so hot.
    We need to straighten our acts up! Don’t you hear what the consumers are demanding???? If they stop buying your products, you go out of business. The treatment of the animals and their diet is intimately involved in the safety of the food.
    Everyone needs to wake up!

  • Farmer with a Dell

    Consumers are demanding…and buying…our modern farm products without much complaint. We grow and package what the market demands. That is how it has always been and no amount of wispy dreaming a.k.a. Michael Pollan is going to change that. So, I have to conclude it is this sustained consumer demand for abundant safe affordable food that has your undershorts all worked up in a bunch. No one really cares how much you detest modern agriculture or why. You are merely shouting your obtuse opinions and making no real proven sense. Sure, you cherrypick the opinion of some addled college professor here, some pop science journalist there to blame progress in American agriculture for tarnishing your sentimental dream of small towns. Look, when your crackpot foodie wingnut hate for successful professional farmers is finally adopted by consumers, to the extent they demand different products, then your internet campaign to reform farming will have succeeded. Until then, keep spitting feathers and “rocking the boat” with your sensationalism. We in agriculture are well aware how our profession is being infiltrated at all levels by scab anti-farm foodies, like yourself. You and your ilk preach hate to the choir and, apart from the monotonous annoyance you bring, you present no problem for serious agriculture professionals so long as you do your mundane job — inspecting meat, bagging corn seed, selling fertilizer, whatever. It has been the tradition of hired help to bitch and complain to anyone who will listen. Any worker encountering an insurmountable philosophical conflict is welcome to leave the agriculture payroll at any time to take gainful employment among anti-farm propagandist crusaders — I wonder how well they pay and how much trash talk against them they will put up with from the hired help? All in all, anti-farming scabs don’t have it so bad working in the industry as they would have everyone believe. I certainly agree with you that someone needs to straighten up their act. Let’s grow up and get back to work producing food now, shall we?

  • Tamara

    “Consumers are demanding…and buying…our modern farm products without much complaint. We grow and package what the market demands.”
    There isn’t much complaint because the vast majority of consumers are ignorant ! You need to practically be a chemist in order to understand what’s going on with food these days.
    Should the food producers be driving the health and welfare of the country’s citizens ? We have an obesity epidemic and it’s not because people are lazy, it’s because there’s endless array of omnipresent high calorie non-nutritious junk marketed as food and made available 24×7. In some neighborhoods that’s all they’ve got. You apparently don’t care, but it’s obvious that Minkpuppy does. You tell him to “grow up” but what you’re really telling him is to be greedy and selfish and short-sighted and not care about other people or future generations but instead support the industries that pump out more and more crap for people to consume.

  • Farmer with a Dell

    “…the vast majority of consumers are ignorant!” Well, certainly the vast majority wisely ignore the pathetic bleating of a Koolaid intoxicated minority of kneejerk industry haters. A minority so distracted, so out of touch with the reality of feeding a global population it cannot see the forest for the trees, cannot (or will not) recognize the majority obviously is correct in its collective judgement and the minority, flailing in its coached histrionics, is simply wrong in its selfish tantrums and extreme sensationalism. Any crusade reliant upon diagnosing the majority as stupid or ignorant is a crusade populated by unspeakably smug elitists. The market rules, it is the voice of the majority…the well-reasoned opinion of a sane, educated majority. I fail to perceive how foodie wingnuts expect to bring majority consumers around by berating us as “ignorant”, “selfish”, “greedy”, uncaring and worse. We are not marginally as ignorant or gullible as conniving Pollan disciples believe…or hope. Nor are we particularly amused by any of it, because your crusade is insulting not because we are particularly uncaring.

  • Minkpuppy

    Tamara, thanks for sticking up for me!
    Farmer in the Dell et al: You’re insulted??? I’m insulted that you think anyone that expresses an opinion you don’t like is some ignorant yuppie elitist that’s brainwashed by Michael Pollan. I’m insulted that you negate someone else’s personal experiences because it doesn’t agree with your world view.
    I’ve repeatedly stated that I’ve been involved in Agriculture all my life and I have a degree in Animal Science (so I do know a bit about ruminant biology thank you very much) but yet I’m still attacked and called names because your beliefs are threatened.
    I developed my views on the subject of corn in the late 1980’s long before Pollan ever hit the scene. I read his books and there’s a lot of crap in there that I don’t agree with or believe was misinterpreted/exaggerated by Pollan. But he’s dead on that most people no longer know where there food comes from.
    I also think locavore movement is naive in thinking that it can feed billions of people. I understand their need to understand where their food comes from and how it’s produced. The food industry hasn’t exactly been transparent and as the population has become more urbanized, they no longer have a connection to the farm. I shake my head at every story I hear that kids think steaks and milk come from the grocery store rather than from cows. It’s unbelievable.
    I think Joel Salatin is endangering his customers with his meat that he thinks is so free of Salmonella. I have news for him. 120 CFU of Salmonella ain’t an A grade by USDA performance standards (which are woefully inadequate).
    I’m very vocal in my disagreement over the direction of HACCP in meat inspection and how FSIS addresses pathogens and it’s failure to address contamination in the slaughter plants. But interestingly enough, the big packers also are leaders in food safety innovations. They just don’t want to take responsibility and clean up the carcasses and won’t demand that the animals they buy be raised in conditions that will reduce the likelihood of pathogen shedding.
    So you see, as a farm kid and worker in the meat industry, I have been involved all my life with feeding the global population but it doesn’t stop me from seeing the flaws in the current system.
    I’ve seen both sides of the debate and watched my family members get beaten down by the current farming system to the point that my Dad walked away from farming because he no longer enjoyed it. My brother lost his shirt one season due to the Starlink corn fiasco-his crops were contaminated and his grain was docked severely. I’ve listened to my brother bitch about the wonder low emissions fuel known as soy diesel that has a tendency to gel up much faster than regular diesel in the winter time in Iowa preventing the tractors from starting. My dad has bitched about gasahol screwing up his pickup engines since the day they started selling ‘gasahol” in Iowa. I refuse to put E85 in my govt car because I end up refueling more often which ultimately is costing the government more money even though it’s supposed to reduce emissions. I simply drive too many miles in a day for it to be economical–and we can’t carpool because each of us as our own inspection assignments we have to visit.
    I’ve watched countless neighbors and family members (all farmers BTW) suffer from cancers and fertility problems. The cancer docs told my parents (both cancer survivors) that they live in a cancer belt that the CDC is ignoring which just happens to be right smack dab in the middle of farm country. Oh, but the farm chemicals are safe, right? Not so convinced of that, Sorry.
    I now live near the Gulf of Mexico and hear constant complaints from the fisherman and shrimpers about the pollution of the Gulf from the BP fiasco and the topsoil run off clogging the Mississippi Delta.
    I’m far from convinced that the general population of consumers is well educated about what they’re eating. On the contrary, I’m pretty darn sure most consumers don’t give a damn as long as it tastes good and is convenient to eat and cook.
    I encountered a woman the other day that believes the bullshit that lunch meat is made out of cow eyeballs and bungholes (it’s not–these items aren’t even considered edible by humans). When people find out I’m a meat inspector, I get asked all sorts of questions because that fact is most of them have no clue how meat gets to their table.
    I’m advocating a shift in the thinking about the way we grow food and how it effects more than just the local ecosystem where the crops are grown. We cannot continue dumping toxins on the fields and naively thinking that it’s not hurting people and the environment downstream. We can also do a lot more to reduce stress on livestock to make them healthier and stronger without pumping them full of hormones and drugs whose safety is debateable.
    Sorry to burst your bubble. Not that it probably matters to you. Try seeing things from others point of view in awhile. You might learn something.
    I’m done with this thread.

  • Farmer with a Dell

    Sure wish I had a government car to drive! It would be convenient, too, to blame all of life’s disappointments (including cancer!) on corn culture. So easy. Too easy.

  • Farmer, love the snark, but is there something about my post you find is factually wrong?

  • Farmer with a Dell

    As for ethanol I can take it or leave it. Ethanol is a sop to the popular wet dream of “green alternative fuels”, an emotional fad that will ultimately be displaced by the next yuppy fetish. In the meantime ethanol from grain appears to be the only commercially viable “alternative” vehicle fuel (no surprise, we’ve been distilling ethanol for centuries). But what is the point of condemning grain farmers for stepping up to meet increased demand for their product, whatever the source? The argument is far too convenient for Pollan disciples to use as a bludgeon (if it wasn’t ethanol it would only be some other angry contorted point of contention with them). One might cherrypick studies to refute or defend each of the issues you raise, demoting any discussion to little more than a philosophical argument accessorized with the inevitable emotional foodie hyperbole. At the end of the day it all amounts to mental masturbation. Corn is not going to be “rationed” (who would be the regulating body to do so?). A recent study suggests by-product distiller grains may increase shedding of 0157:H7 (until another study comes along to refute it), but it is not the cause of e. coli contamination. Banning distillers grains will not eliminate 0157:H7 issues. Like ethanol mixed with car fuel, cattlemen blend some distiller by-product into cattle feed, but they don’t necessarily prefer it – they can take it or leave it. Finally, Africans were starving before ethanol, odds are they will continue to starve because, among other reasons, they are caught in a crossfire from the self-same save-the-planet caped crusaders who would prevent export of food or technology onto that continent from our own (American agriculture would happily feed Africa – see what you can do in the new farm bill to permit that to happen!). All in all, I am favorably impressed by American Agricutlure’s capacity to meet massively increased demand. It is that remarkable responsiveness that seems to upset sanctimonious foodies who, as it turns out, are the one’s who don’t understand where the world’s food truly comes from on a daily basis or what actually goes into producing it. Keep ethanol or toss it, any real impact upon food prices or safety will be minimal. It makes fine political fuel but little else.

  • tamara

    Farmer, I suppose the cigarette manufacturers made the same arguments you do. They’re just providing a product that people want, right ?
    I notice that so much of the junk being sold as food is marketed to kids. Sugar-laden corn-based crap marketed as healthy breakfast food. “Nutrition” bars for toddlers, because they’re apparently so busy they don’t have time to eat normal foods. If you want to create a generation of sugar-addicted obese kids, this is the way to go. Whose fault is this ? The manufacturers are just providing what the people want, right ? Wrong. The manufacturers are concocting this crap and marketing it and putting it on the shelves in the stores and the consumer has little or nothing to do with the process, other than to see a few lies on the packaging to make them believe that there’s a shred of nutrition in it. Their ignorance prevents them from seeing the big picture. They don’t know what sugar or fats or chemical additives do to their bodies. And once they become junkies they won’t even care. Just like cigarettes.
    Minkpuppy, loved your posts ! Very informative !