Corn Can’t Solve Our Problem
By David Tilman and Jason Hill
Washington Post
March 25, 2007

The world has come full circle. A century ago our first transportation biofuels — the hay and oats fed to our horses — were replaced by gasoline. Today, ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soybeans have begun edging out gasoline and diesel.

This has been hailed as an overwhelmingly positive development that will help us reduce the threat of climate change and ease our dependence on foreign oil. In political circles, ethanol is the flavor of the day, and presidential candidates have been cycling through Iowa extolling its benefits. Lost in the ethanol-induced euphoria, however, is the fact that three of our most fundamental needs — food, energy, and a livable and sustainable environment — are now in direct conflict. Moreover, our recent analyses of the full costs and benefits of various biofuels, performed at the University of Minnesota, present a markedly different and more nuanced picture than has been heard on the campaign trail.

Some biofuels, if properly produced, do have the potential to provide climate-friendly energy, but where and how can we grow them? Our most fertile lands are already dedicated to food production. As demand for both food and energy increases, competition for fertile lands could raise food prices enough to drive the poorer third of the globe into malnourishment. The destruction of rainforests and other ecosystems to make new farmland would threaten the continued existence of countless animal and plant species and would increase the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Finding and implementing solutions to the food, fuel and environment conflict is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. But solutions will be neither adopted nor sought until we understand the interlinked problems we face.

Fossil fuel use has pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide higher than at any time during the past half-million years. The global population has increased threefold in the past century and will increase by half again, to 9 billion people, by 2050. Global food and fossil energy consumption are on trajectories to double by 2050.

Biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn, have the potential to provide us with cleaner energy. But because of how corn ethanol currently is made, only about 20 percent of each gallon is “new” energy. That is because it takes a lot of “old” fossil energy to make it: diesel to run tractors, natural gas to make fertilizer and, of course, fuel to run the refineries that convert corn to ethanol.

If every one of the 70 million acres on which corn was grown in 2006 was used for ethanol, the amount produced would displace only 12 percent of the U.S. gasoline market. Moreover, the “new” (non-fossil) energy gained would be very small — just 2.4 percent of the market. Car tune-ups and proper tire air pressure would save more energy.

There is another problem with relying on a food-based biofuel, such as corn ethanol, as the poor of Mexico can attest. In recent months, soaring corn prices, sparked by demand from ethanol plants, have doubled the price of tortillas, a staple food. Tens of thousands of Mexico City’s poor recently protested this “ethanol tax” in the streets.

In the United States, the protests have also begun — in Congress. Representatives of the dairy, poultry and livestock industries, which rely on corn as a principal animal feed, are seeking an end to subsidies for corn ethanol in the hope of stabilizing corn prices. (It takes about three pounds of corn to produce a pound of chicken, and seven or eight pounds to grow a pound of beef.) Profit margins are being squeezed, and meat prices are rising.

U.S. soybeans, which are used to make biodiesel, may be about to follow corn’s trajectory, escalating the food vs. fuel conflict. The National Biodiesel Board recently reported that 77 biodiesel production plants are under construction and that eight established plants are expanding capacity.

In terms of environmental impact, all biofuels are not created equal. Ethanol is the same chemical product no matter what its source. But ethanol made from prairie grasses, from corn grown in Illinois and from sugar cane grown on newly cleared land in Brazil have radically different impacts on greenhouse gases.

Corn, like all plants, is a natural part of the global carbon cycle. The growing crop absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so burning corn ethanol does not directly create any additional carbon. But that is only part of the story. All of the fossil fuels used to grow corn and change it into ethanol release new carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The net effect is that ethanol from corn grown in the Corn Belt does increase atmospheric greenhouse gases, and this increase is only about 15 percent less than the increase caused by an equivalent amount of gasoline. Soybean biodiesel does better, causing a greenhouse gas increase that is about 40 percent less than that from petroleum diesel.

In Brazil, ethanol made from sugar cane produces about twice as much ethanol per acre as corn. Brazilian ethanol refineries get much of their power from burning cane residue, in effect recycling carbon from the atmosphere. The environmental benefit is large. Sugar-cane ethanol grown on established soils releases 80 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline.

But that isn’t the case for sugar-cane ethanol or soybean biodiesel from Brazil’s newly cleared lands, including tropical forests and savannas. Clearing land releases immense amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, because much of the material in the plants and soil is broken down into carbon dioxide.

Plants and soil contain three times more carbon than the atmosphere. The trees and soil of an acre of rainforest — which, once cleared, is suitable for growing soybeans — contain about 120 tons of organic carbon. An acre of tropical woodland or savanna, suitable for sugar cane, contains about half this amount. About a fourth of the carbon in an ecosystem is released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when trees are clear-cut, brush and branches are burned or rot, and roots decay. Even more is lost during the first 20 to 50 years of farming, as soil carbon decomposes into carbon dioxide and as wood products are burned or decay.

This means that when tropical woodland is cleared to produce sugar cane for ethanol, the greenhouse gas released is about 50 percent greater than what occurs from the production and use of the same amount of gasoline. And that statistic holds for at least two decades.

Simply being “renewable” does not automatically make a fuel better for the atmosphere than the fossil fuel it replaces, nor guarantee that society gains any new energy by its production. The European Union was recently shocked to learn that some of its imported biodiesel, derived from palm trees planted on rain-forest lands, was more than twice as bad for climate warming as petroleum diesel. So much for the “benefits” of that form of biodiesel.

Although current Brazilian ethanol is environmentally friendly, the long-term environmental implications of buying more ethanol and biodiesel from Brazil, a possibility raised recently during President Bush’s trip to that country, are cloudy. It could be harmful to both the climate and the preservation of tropical plant and animal species if it involved, directly or indirectly, additional clearing of native ecosystems.

Concerns about the environmental effects of ethanol production are starting to be felt in the United States as well. It appears that American farmers may add 10 million acres of corn this year to meet booming demand for ethanol. Some of this land could come from millions of acres now set aside nationwide for conservation under a government-subsidized program. Those uncultivated acres absorb atmospheric carbon, so farming them and converting the corn into ethanol could release more carbon dioxide into the air than would burning gasoline.

There are biofuel crops that can be grown with much less energy and chemicals than the food crops we currently use for biofuels. And they can be grown on our less fertile land, especially land that has been degraded by farming. This would decrease competition between food and biofuel. The United States has about 60 million acres of such land — in the Conservation Reserve Program, road edge rights-of-way and abandoned farmlands.

In a 10-year experiment reported in Science magazine in December, we explored how much bioenergy could be produced by 18 different native prairie plant species grown on highly degraded and infertile soil. We planted 172 plots in central Minnesota with various combinations of these species, randomly chosen. We found, on this highly degraded land, that the plots planted with mixtures of many native prairie perennial species yielded 238 percent more bioenergy than those planted with single species. High plant diversity led to high productivity, and little fertilizer or chemical weed or pest killers was required.

The prairie “hay” harvested from these plots can be used to create high-value energy sources. For instance, it can be mixed with coal and burned for electricity generation. It can be “gasified,” then chemically combined to make ethanol or synthetic gasoline. Or it can be burned in a turbine engine to make electricity. A technique that is undergoing rapid development involves bioengineering enzymes that digest parts of plants (the cellulose) into sugars that are then fermented into ethanol.

Whether converted into electricity, ethanol or synthetic gasoline, the high-diversity hay from infertile land produced as much or more new usable energy per acre as corn for ethanol on fertile land. And it could be harvested year after year.

Even more surprising were the greenhouse gas benefits. When high-diversity mixtures of native plants are grown on degraded soils, they remove carbon dioxide from the air. Much of this carbon ends up stored in the soil. In essence, mixtures of native plants gradually restore the carbon levels that degraded soils had before being cleared and farmed. This benefit lasts for about a century.

Across the full process of growing high-diversity prairie hay, converting it into an energy source and using that energy, we found a net removal and storage of about a ton and a half of atmospheric carbon dioxide per acre. The net effect is that ethanol or synthetic gasoline produced from this grass on degraded land can provide energy that actually reduces atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

When one of these carbon-negative biofuels is mixed with gasoline, the resulting blend releases less carbon dioxide than traditional gasoline.

Biofuels, if used properly, can help us balance our need for food, energy and a habitable and sustainable environment. To help this happen, though, we need a national biofuels policy that favors our best options. We must determine the carbon impacts of each method of making these fuels, then mandate fuel blending that achieves a prescribed greenhouse gas reduction. We have the knowledge and technology to start solving these problems.