I’ve got a love/hate relationship with my environmental magazines. I love them because I’m a fan of the environment, especially the birds, and the articles and issues discussed therein interest me. I hate them because I feel like 90% of the time I’m being preached to or talked at by a group of individuals that are out-of-touch with the realities of working and living in today’s world. The editors and writers expect so much more from the casual reader re: conservation than is practically feasible. Sometimes I wonder whether or not I’d have my subscription canceled if the editors knew I drove an SUV.
I also get irritated with the magazines on occasion because I often find the articles starting from a premise that I don’t think is a “given.” They’ll assume a conventional wisdom that I don’t think is fair to assume. One of my biggest such pet peeves is ethanol. Conventional wisdom says corn-based ethanol is the future “alternative” to big oil and that we should all be pumping tons of money and resources into the corn-based ethanol industry. It’s especially the rule here in Iowa, where farmers stand to make a lot of dough on the increased demand for corn. But, truth be told, corn-based ethanol is only marginally better than gasoline. And in less some unforeseen breakthrough in technology hits us in the near future, corn-based ethanol will never be able to supplant big oil.
And therein lies the reason why I like Audubon magazine the most. They don’t just accept the “conventional wisdom” and pander to those readers who subscribe to the “everything is a crisis so we should pretty much do anything that seems like it’s a good idea and there is no time to think about it and don’t you disagree with me or you obviously aren’t serious about the environment” meme. Obviously, I’m saying the above with a bit of tongue-in-cheek going on there, but I think you catch my drift. As an example, last month Audubon ran a well-written and thoroughly researched article on why we should not be running out and planting trees all over God’s green Earth (despite the fact that most Big Green companies espouse tree planting as a way to curb global warming, etc.). Not planting trees, I must admit, was news to me. I had assumed tree planting was all hunky-dory.
Now, Audubon has come out and basically said that we shouldn’t be putting our eggs into the corn-based ethanol basket. I’ve believed this for years, and have posted about it on previous blogs, but never have I seen it so eloquently put, nor have I seen all the facts laid out so well in one place. Audubon’s alternative? Perennial grasses. But almost as important as suggesting an alternative to corn-based ethanol is thoroughly critiquingand considering the problems of corn-based ethanol (which should encourage people to keep working on finding a solution). For example:
“Since almost everything we eat can be converted into fuel for automobiles, including wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, and sugarcane, the line between the food and energy economies is disappearing,” writes agricultural economist Lester Brown in a report by the Earth Policy Institute. As that line disappears, corn ethanol’s limitations become clearer. Consider that filling a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with corn ethanol requires enough grain to feed one person for an entire year.
Big problem. Corn-based (and other food-based) ethanol products increase the demand for food products, making them more expensive. We have already felt the impact here in Iowa where milk and dairy products are more expensive than I can ever remember (cows feed on corn, you know). And how about the fact that it takes a year’s-supply of the stuff just to fill up one tank? Are we really willing to make basic food stuffs more expensive and more difficult to purchase, especially considering the marginal effects and abilities of ethanol to supplant oil?
…[A]ccording to recent research described by the University of Minnesota’s Dave Tilman and his colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, dedicating the entire U.S. corn crop to ethanol production would meet just 12 percent of gasoline demand.
If dedicating our entire corn crop to ethanol would only meet 12% of gasoline demand, is it really a solution? And, consider that “dedicating the entire corn crop to ethanol ” means that there is no corn left for eating or feeding animals. Again, that’s some expensive milk! As the article asks: Should we be growing energy or growing food?
Corn lives on solar energy, but fertilizing, harvesting, transporting, and distilling ethanol require lots of fossil energy. Some research suggests that the fossil energy used to produce corn ethanol actually exceeds the energy it provides. Most research, however, shows a positive, if modest, energy balance—25 percent more energy out than in.
That’s pretty inefficient.
The other interesting thing about the article is the discussion of cellulose-based ethanol and its advantages. I won’t belabor them because you can read them in the article. But, basically, ethanol from grass is more efficient than corn-based ethanol because it doesn’t disrupt the food supply, the planting of perennial grasses actually locks more carbon below the soil than annuals like corn and soybeans, it only needs to be replanted every 10 – 15 years (at the earliest) so it needs far less fertilizer (if any, at all), and, almost best of all, grasses will return Iowa to a more natural state and provide cover for native birds and other animals. Bottom line: it’s better for everyone and every thing.
Update: Jane Goodall is not a fan of food-based ethanol, either.