UN urges US to cut ethanol production

Says the FT:

The UN has called for an immediate suspension of government-mandated US ethanol production, adding to pressure on Barack Obama to address the food-versus-fuel debate in the run-up to presidential elections. Most US ethanol is made from corn. The dispute over ethanol promotion pits states such as Iowa that benefit from higher corn prices – and in some cases are swing states in the election – against livestock-raising states such as Texas that are helped by lower corn prices. The UN intervention will be seized upon by state governors, lawmakers and the meat and livestock industry, who have expressed alarm at surging prices for corn. Members of the Group of 20 leading economies – including France, India and China – have already expressed concern about the US ethanol policy. The US is poised to divert around 40 per cent of its corn into ethanol because of the Congress-enacted mandate despite “huge damage” to the crop because of the worst drought in at least half a century, José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, warned.

The biofuels stuff has always been dubious or stupid, though you can make a case that the Brazilian version is worthwhile. The US corn-ethanol programme is and always has been insane (when looked at from a fuel perspective, or a food perspective, or a value-for-money perspective, or any sane perspective) or pork (when looked at from a political perspective). But there is now a whole subsidy-sucking industry built around this pork, so don't expect it to die without squeals. In fact its probably powerful enough not to die at all.


* Latest Drought Science Alarming for US - EW.
* Heatwaves blamed on global warming - Nature, on Hansen.
* Atmospheric CO2 forces abrupt vegetation shifts locally, but not globally

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I mostly agree, noting that a lot of the weirdness comes from the 1960s changes in US Ag policy. Ag subsidies used to act more like insurance or price supports (i.e., setting floors on prices, or helping people across difficult times). They evolved into subsidies for growing more (especially corn), which meant the need for more markets to sell corn into, i.e.e, ethanol, but probably worse, HFCS.

On the other hand, from a long-term point of view of farming:
Mid-West farming depends heavily on oil, since there are lots of farms that are 400-600 acres.

Farmers don't grow any oil, so they are at the mercy of oil prices. Ignore the market distortions that have grown up around this for the time being.
Suppose oil prices were to rise over a long time.
At some point, any rational farmer out there would want to look for alternative ways to power their farm machinery, or at least grow some crops whose prices would track oil prices better, i.e., fuel crops.

150 years ago, midwest farming really expanded (railroads), but the farmers used horses.

150 years from now, there won't be a lot of conventional oil, which means:
a) go back to horses
b) burn some biofuel, hopefully better than corn-ethanol
c) Use windmillls, solar cells and electric tractors.
300hp combines may take some effort.

[150 years is far too far to look ahead, certainly for farmers. On the shorter scale, I'm not sure that having farmers grow their own fuel makes much sense, unless you apply the same idea to everyone who uses fuel -W]

By John Mashey (not verified) on 10 Aug 2012 #permalink

Of course, it would be gauche to mention that all the protein, minerals, fiber and vitamins in corn are preserved in the ethanol production process. This material is sold as distiller's grain as livestock feed and for a lot of ethanol plants it is more lucrative than the ethanol itself. Only the empty calories in the corn starch are consumed for fuel. (It shouldn't need to be said that almost all corn (and soy) grown in the world goes for livestock feed. So saying that distiller's grain doesn't count because it isn't people food is another attempt to mislead the public about the impact of ethanol production.)

By justawriter (not verified) on 10 Aug 2012 #permalink

Re: fuel crops
I have some personal experience here. I am working with a group of farmers growing oilseeds. We have machinery to squeeze the oil outta the grain, we return the meal to the farmers to feed livestock, and sell the oil into restaurants. Then we recover the oil (recovery rate is around 80%) and make biodiesel. Typically, we can get between 1-2 gallon fresh oil per bushel (depending on what we are squeezing) These farmers use at most 10 gallon diesel/acre, all told. from planting thru delivery. We use grid electricity to power the machinery, if we were to use biodiesel to run the machinery we would use up about a quarter of the oil produced.

I should mention that every one of these farmers is against the corn to ethanol mandate. The are also bitterly resentful of the stranglehold that Monsanto and Pioneer have over them. The way it works is that the seed dealers keep track of which farmers have purchased seed from them. They inform the parent companies, who send investigators into the fields of the farmers who have not purchased seed that year, to check if the farmer is growing patent encumbered GMO crop. Even if the farmer is growing non GMO, the crops can often be contaminated with GMO from neighboring fields, but the farmer still gets sued, and almost always loses farm and livelihood. We also have to be very careful in the use of certain equipment such as seed cleaners, for they have been cases where cleaning seed was construed to be a crime of aiding and abetting circumvention of restrictions on the use of encumbered seed. We are working with the farmers to introduce non encumbered seed, and reduce the use of expensive herbicide. We have made some progress with non GMO canola, and hope to do more.


[I'm not sure how the efficiencies of this work, but pressing the oil out sounds less wasteful than making ethanol. In terms of overall calorie-production efficiency there is obvious scope for improvement by not passing it through cattle; but that is another matter -W]

As I understand it early diesel engines were designed to run on vegetable oil. Ethanol, a much harder product to manufacture from plants, was selected to serve the needs of gasoline engines.

sidd: thanks, good info.
(I grew up on a small farm and love of Monsanto, etc is not in my genes.)

Let me try a conjecture:
1) in the long run, farms should use electricity as much as possible, clearly for fixed machinery, and as much as possible for mobile, as batteries improve. For some of this, burning biomass to supplement wind+solar may be a more efficient pathway than trying to turn it into biofuels.

2) Fuel will still be needed for some mobile uses and for those one wants biofuels from whatever makes the best economic sense, not via market-distortions like the ehtanol mandate.

3) Of course, one of the issues is the overweighting of some farm states in the US Senate compared to population or revenue.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 10 Aug 2012 #permalink

I'll defend bioethanol production as practiced in Brazil. For Brazil it has been sensible and is likely to continue to be so for several more years to come.

Similarly for India.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 10 Aug 2012 #permalink

I should also say that the farmers i work with would rather burn the corn direct for process heat (all farmers need hot water) than bother to make it into ethanol first. Not that they would do either. They are using solar hot water as soon as they can roll it out.

I raised a smile when they asked me for my opinion on corn to ethanol, and i said, "you mean, to drink ?" (they don't drink much around there.)


What do you guys think of the rule of the thumb: bio-fuels from waste are ethically okay, bio-fuels from food are not. Also in case of waste material one will have to have a look whether it makes sense energetically and economically.

[Making it part of ethics sounds like the wrong solution to me. My complaint about the US corn ethanol programme is that it is deeply stupid, wasteful, and inefficient. it would never survive the free market.

If you decide to make this a matter of ethics - as in, we're making ethanol from food for our SUVs whilst poor folk are starving - then life becomes much more complex. Those people are also starving because we're feeding our corn to cattle and then eating the cattle, which is as wasteful as the ethanol programme. But then again they are mostly starving because their government is rubbish, or actively harming them -W]

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 12 Aug 2012 #permalink

As a rule of thumb, I think it is over-simplistic.
In some places, farmers grow trees to be used for fuel, not food. Is that unethical? Should they be required to cut the trees down and grow wheat or corn or soybeans?

Also, recall that a lot of corn turns into food by being processed into HFCS. Is that good, or bad? Better than ethanol, or worse?

Actually, the drought brings up another good issue, fare more serious than foolishness of policies that can be fixed.

People may recall the meme "CO2 is plant food!"
How come the rise in CO2 isn't growing bumper crops in the US Midwest this year?
Farm kids learn <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebig%27s_law_of_the_minimum&quot;?Liebig's L:aw of the Minimum or generalizations thereof, by the time they're 10, I think. (I did). Serious gardeners know it, of course.

No amount of CO2 will make corn grow well in the Sahara.
Some of the US MidWest depends on rainfalll (and having neither too little nor too much/floods) some depends on the Ogallala aquifer and all of it depends on reasonable temperature ranges.

None of that is overly-good news.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 12 Aug 2012 #permalink

I think John has it right. the whole 'food vs. fuel' meme greatly oversimplifies the situation. Indirect land-use change is a complicated beast.

Corn is grown primarily for animal feed, not human consumption; and most of the stuff that is for human consumption occurs via corn syrup as already noted. So if people are truly interested in sustainable ag policy they'd be better off changing their diets rather than worrying about what is used to fuel their vehicle.

By Marlowe Johnson (not verified) on 13 Aug 2012 #permalink

The problem is not the fact of developing fuel, at least here in Mexico, the whole corn situation has lead the food prices to historical levels.

It must be an international agreement to regulate and develop controls in order to prevent prices from raising to these levels, at least here in Mexico Corn is the prime ingredient to a lot of foods and it's considered to be one of the most important basic foods.

(On the other hand, demand for corn is highly increasing, am I the only one seeing a business opportunity here?)

"...it would never survive the free market." Do you mean the "free market" where biofuels are competing against oil subsidized to the tune of $4+ billion per annum.

[ {{cn}} -W]

or the "free market" where the US spends $1+trillion "fighting terrorism" to stabilize Middle East oil production?

[I'm dubious about that. The US wastes vast amounts of money on the Iraq war, and the Afghanistan war, but calling all or even most of that oil subsidies rings false -W]

My take is that the ethanol mandates were a stupid, wasteful, inefficient, but necessary bridge to flex fuel vehicles, which creates an incentive for R&D investment in cellulosic ethanol. The political power of the Big Ag lobby added many bad details to the legislation.

[No. I don't believe anything can be stupid, wasteful, inefficient AND necessary -W]

Because of the threat multiplier of AGW driven food insecurity,[1] we oughtta have a suspension of corn-to-ethanol, as well as programmes to eat more efficiently. The other end of the solution is more efficient production of food and biofuel. For instance, feeding sidd's oilseed meal to tilapia (FCE ~2) instead of cattle (FCE ~14) would increase high quality protein food considerably.

[Its doomed. Talk about it if you like, but please don't expect it to go anywhere. "programmes to eat more efficiently" is a non-starter -W]

Another food and environmental crime is how humans misuse the nitrogen cycle. We use natural gas and coal to produce fixed N fertilizer at a direct cost of ~ $1000/ton, plus the externalized cost of global warming. Then, after we've fertilized the crops(releasing NxO GHG), fed most of the crops to farm animals(producing CH4 GHG), and digested them, our resulting waste, high in nitrogen, goes to a sewer treatment plant - where the largest operating cost is the electrical energy (mostly from fossil fuels) used to aerate the sewage so microbes can convert the remaining fixed N back to N2 gas.

By Brian Dodge (not verified) on 13 Aug 2012 #permalink

The US version is not that good still there is place for some use for it... especially for heavy vehicles that are far from being able to use electricity and other things at the moment

[No. I don't believe anything can be stupid, wasteful, inefficient AND necessary -W] You've gotten it backwards - sometimes solving a problem is necessary; often the solution is stupid, wasteful, and inefficient - usually because of ideological, religious, social, or economic self interest reasons.

[...calling all or even most of that oil subsidies rings false -W]
"We should establish and maintain a strong U.S. military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the Gulf" Elliot Abrams*, William J. Bennett, Jeffrey Bergner*, John R. Bolton*, Paula Dobriansky*, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad*, William Kristol, Richard Perle*, Peter Rodman*, Donald Rumsfeld*, William Schneider, Jr.*, Vin Weber, Paul Wolfowitz*, R. James Woolsey, Robert B. Zoellick* http://www.newamericancentury.org/iraqletter1998.htm

what "vital interest" you ask?
"It hardly needs to be added that if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as he is almost certain to do if we continue along the present course, the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will all be put at hazard." Elliott Abrams*, Richard L. Armitage*, William J. Bennett, Jeffrey Bergner*, John Bolton*, Paula Dobriansky*, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad*, William Kristol, Richard Perle*, Peter W. Rodman*, Donald Rumsfeld*, William Schneider*, Jr., Vin Weber, Paul Wolfowitz*, R. James Woolsey, Robert B. Zoellick*

"Oil remains fundamentally a government business. While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East with two thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies..." Dick Cheney*

Yes there are reasons beyond oil why it costs so much blood and money, and why it is taking so long to wind down, and why the US will likely never officially admit that the root cause was the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to "our" oil supplies. But absent the keystone importance of oil, none of those other reasons would amount to a hill o' beans. N Korea HAS nuclear weapons; Mexican drug cartels ARE terrorists; the 2996 immediate casualties are less than our 4000+ military casualties from our response, and are dwarfed by the 20,000 gun deaths, 30,000+ traffic fatalities, and 100,000+ other casualties of the US invasion(a stupid, wasteful, inefficient solution to the necessity of dealing with terrorism). The first step was onto an oily slippery slope, a road to hell paved with seemingly good intentions and greased with crude.

*members of the Bush Administration

By Brian Dodge (not verified) on 06 Oct 2012 #permalink

Cut the production of green energy, enviromentally friendly fuel? Say it aint so!

Surely the UN can not mean this! Did they ask for permission to suggest this from the IPCC? Did they talk to Al Gore?

The planet is on fire, the oceans are rising, polar bears are adrift on icebergs.........people could drown!