From corn-fed to corn-addicted?

I know ethanol, mainly from corn, is seen by some as an alternative to petroleum fuel but I’m very uneasy about the sustainability of such a project if serious conservation and profound alterations to our (US and world) energy usage doesn’t accompany the change.

Corn isn’t oil; it takes a lot of energy input — by way of fertilizer, water transportation and processing — to get a final product, and apart from petroleum it is hard to think of a raw material that’s as ubiquitous. We may use it to run our cars one day, and to feed plastic production, but it already used to fatten our cattle, feed layer hens and sweeten our soft drinks.

I’m a mostly white, mostly Southern American. As far as I can think, the only really potent racial slur against whites in America goes back to my ancestors’ corn eating habits, and yet this seems to be the one use for corn that people seem to forget. Perhaps the associations with desperation and poverty make corn-eating easy to forget when you have other delightful morsels. Such people are always subject to degradation and deprivation. But when you boil it down to grits — as the saying goes — millions of people worldwide rely on corn as their “daily bread” even as globalized markets make these hungry masses dependent on corn cheaply grown in the United States and other major exporters. If Malawi can’t compete with the US in world petroleum markets then their cars will stop running. If Malawi can’t compete with US drivers for US-grown corn, people will starve, and the reality is such countries may not be able to re-activate their own agriculture in time.

That’s why I’m mad at those environmentally sensitive souls who push for more fuel ethanol and shrug off objections as the rantings of the petro industry.

The BBC reports today that these new domestic corn uses may already be affecting the Mexican tortilla industry. That why, for all the innovations, I plead with my readers to conserve more and use less. Nothing in this world but sunlight and love are free and unexhausted. We could become just as addicted to corn fuel, or biodiesel or any other new “solution” if we regard it too cheaply.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. Here in Indiana corn-to-ethanol and soy-to-diesel refinement plants are sprouting up like “weeds”. The latest is under construction near the town of Winchester. Local economists, including one that is known to both BiTB and I, have expressed some skepticism in local newspapers. While this is a step towards increased domestic fuel production, it is also a step towards forcing up agricultural commodity prices. This is good for the pockets of American farmers, but bad for international food supplies. And corn specifically suffers from a higher than normal cost of converstion to ethanol, and a history of government propping up the price of this commodity. With regards to the cost of conversion to ethanol, there are farmable grasses that are easier to convert to ethanol. With regards to government interference with corn prices, one only needs to look at the domestic sugar market. A recent retiree from the USDA explained to me that there are a whole host of government policies, some subtle and others obvious, that encourage the use of high fructose corn syrup over other forms of sugar (including sugar derived from sugar cane and sugar beets [my grandfather farmed those beets in northern Michigan]). I’ve often wondered if there is an aggresive corn-agri-business lobby.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.