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Sustainability: The myth of ethanol

Posted 1/30/2008 1:22am by Leaf Myczack.
"The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Once again, we find our political leadership united around a very bad idea. This time it is ethanol and other bio-fuels to help gain "energy independence," to "help farmers," and most importantly, to help citizens avoid the harsh reality of peak oil converging with unsustainable lifestyles. It is understandable that politicians would pander to the corn growing states in search of election votes. Even the most seemingly enlightened, progressive, and thoughtful of them have fallen prey to this type of behavior.

While some crops are superior to others for producing ethanol, and forest-eating cellulostic ethanol technology plans are still in development, corn ethanol primacy is devouring the nation's alternative energy focus. Billions of taxpayer dollars are being thrown into this unsustainable technology, resulting in a subsidy of 51 cents for each gallon of auto alcohol produced.

In the rush to deplete our nation's dwindling soil resources, corn is king. Corn devours soil nutrients at 12-20 times the rate of soil renewal, meaning it is already a highly unsustainable crop. Corn is also highly dependent on fossil fuel based fertilizer and pesticide inputs. With the inevitable hybridization and genetically modified organism (GMO) corn crops, the soil nutrient depletion will accelerate. The Corn Cartel, led by the likes of Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto, has been working for decades on their plans for corn dominion in U.S. agriculture, and are now reaping record profits and subsidies.

To grow enough corn for ethanol to replace our current oil consumption would require approximately 482 million acres of cropland, exceeding the current total of 434 million acres of cropland used for all food and fiber. This does not even account for projected growth of oil consumption in the U.S. There is already the push to put the marginal Conservation Reserve Program lands, vital for wildlife and water quality and quantity, into intense energy crop production. Old school ethical farmers in the corn-belt are lamenting the destruction of soil saving windbreaks, (some planted during the CCC years), and the plowing under of hayfields to place highly erodable hilly lands into corn production. This unsustainable type agriculture hearkens back to the depression era insanity that squandered so much vital topsoil.

Ethanol contains only 70% of the energy of gasoline. Therefore, it takes much more ethanol than gasoline to go a hundred miles, undermining the 10-cent price difference at the pump that makes it seem like we are saving both money and the earth. The ethanol scam will only accelerate global warming. As forests are cleared, more carbon is released than could ever possibly be avoided by burning ethanol. It appears that the ethanol fumes are leaving us drunk on delusion, ignoring the short and long-term consequences, and refusing to face a future without cheap and plentiful oil. To paraphrase the famous Jack Nicholson line..."We can't handle the truth about unsustainable lifestyles, global warming, and how we're endangering this and future generations."

Do we feed cars or ourselves? To fuel the average American consumer's driving habits would require 11 acres of cropland per year, the same cropland that could feed seven people for a year. Ethanol primacy is in direct competition for the dairy and animal industry. In the US, the USDA projects that the wholesale price of chicken will be 10% higher this year, the price of eggs up 21%, milk 14%, beef 6% and this is only the beginning. Other food crops like soybeans, wheat, and barley are being plowed under to feed cars instead of people.

There is a reason that Toyota is now the biggest auto dealer in the US...innovation and greatly improved fuel mileage. Detroit seems to be asleep at the wheel in comparison.

A real list of energy conservation solutions would include the following: consumption based taxation on fossil fuels, vastly improved mileage standards with current technology, more emphasis on development and improvements in solar, wind and storage battery technologies, car pooling, and inter-city light rail. Decentralized solar and wind could power virtually all of our current home and transportation needs. We could quit transporting our food an average of 1,500 miles per bite and instead buy our food from local, sustainable, organic-based farms. We could re-learn to once again live within our means as both individuals and communities; based upon the timeless values of taking care of the planet for future generations, living by the golden rule, and being smart enough to figure things out and then doing right by the Earth and all its’ inhabitants. These measures could allow us to develop truly sustainable options without a noticeable impact on our current standard of living.

Guest blog by
Denny Haldeman
Soddy Daisy, TN.