Rethinking biofuels

As crop prices rise, corn biofuel should be re-examined.

Last June saw some of the most intense flooding to hit the Midwest since 1993. Although agriculture stories seldom capture public attention, this one should have gotten the front page. That’s because this event ought to be seen as the beginning of the end for corn-based biofuel production.

Last year, around 18 percent of our nation’s corn was used in the manufacture of ethanol. This sizeable quantity makes a less-than-impressive dent in our foreign fuel dependency problems, replacing about 2 percent of our gasoline intake. Nevertheless, the continuing demand for corn to be redirected into ethanol has driven corn prices up 80 percent over the past year, with consequent rises in other food markets as well.

Midwest flooding has only exacerbated this problem. In Iowa, the largest corn-producing state in the nation, as much as 10 percent of the year’s crop is expected to be lost. In a national perspective, a recent Department of Agriculture report has projected that farmers across the nation will harvest 9 percent fewer acres of corn this season. Global corn prices have steadily risen to unprecedented levels on the tail of this bad news, approaching a record high of $8 a bushel. National food prices will continue to rise as long as corn prices remain high, and a good way to slow the rate of price increases is to end corn biofuel production.

Certainly, developing alternative fuels is one of the most important avenues of current scientific inquiry and should be thoroughly investigated. But many of the so-called “first generation” biofuels have proven to be unsustainable in the long term. Instead, the solution may lie in the utilization of “second generation” energy sources, which use non-food crops like switchgrass.

Considering this, researchers here at the University deserve praise for studying methods to make the use of second-generation biofuels feasible, and showing the disadvantages of fuels that use corn and soybean crops. The public and policymakers would do well to hear them and consider whether we’d rather be feeding ourselves or feeding our cars.