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Iowa. That’s the answer to a question that growing numbers of scientists, aid workers, reporters, and environmentalists are asking about ethanol and other biofuels. But before we can address the question, it would be helpful to understand what biofuels are and how they are affecting our energy infrastructure. Biofuels in Sixty Seconds or Less Like photovoltaics and wind turbines, biofuels are another way to harness power from the sun, but through photosynthesis. Unlike wind turbines and solar photovoltaics, biofuels are easily stored and dispatched as needed, much like oil, coal, and natural gas, making their energy far more valuable. Before the industrial revolution, biomass materials (i.e., living and recently dead plant material, such as firewood, and biological material, such as dung) were humanity’s primary sources of energy .1 The world’s first mass-produced flex-fuel 3. Biofuels and the Politics of Big Corn Years ago, fairy tales all began with “Once upon a time . . .” Now we know they all begin with, “If I am elected.” –Carolyn Warner  Seductive Futures vehicle, Ford’s Model T, ran on ethanol. And even up through World War II, the United States Army distilled ethanol to supply fuel for combat vehicles. Nevertheless, after the war an abundance of low-cost petroleum washed America’s biofuel industries down the drain.2 For a time. We’ll dredge up the politics behind biofuel’s reemergence in a moment. But first, let’s consider the chief biofuels available today: • Solid biomass such as wood, sawdust, agricultural waste, ma- nure, and other products are burned directly, formed into pel- lets, and converted into charcoal. • Biogases such as methane are produced from organic materi- als in anaerobic digesters or captured as they naturally emit from animal, agricultural, and landfill waste. • Bioalcohol, most commonly ethanol, is distilled from starchy plants such as corn, sugar beets, and sugar cane. • Biodiesel is chemically manufactured from oil-rich plant and animal feedstocks such as animal fats, rapeseed oil, palm oil, and algae. Though the various biofuel techniques vary in style and complexity , the basic idea is the same: refiners convert plant and animal materials into usable energy products. In the United States today, biomass products serve about 5 percent of primary energy demand.3 Biofuel critics point out that the industry produces airborne heavy metals, copious amounts of wastewater, and a variety of other externalized environmental costs. As evidence, they point to Brazil, where ecologists declared many rivers and waterways biologically dead as early as the 1980s due to biofuel effluents (ethanol represents roughly a third of Brazil’s automotive fuel).4 Perhaps the most cited drawback, however, is the risk that biofuels can spark land competition between food and fuel, inducing an upward pressure on global food prices. As biofuels become more valuable, farmers may opt to grow fuel crops in-  Biofuels and the Politics of Big Corn stead of food crops on their existing fields or even level forests in order to expand croplands. High food prices do not significantly affect rich consumers because they spend just a small portion of their income on food. Not so for the world’s poor. For years, researchers warned that expanding biofuels production would jeopardize food security worldwide. Eventually, they proved to be right. Turning Food into Fuel In 2008 riots ensued throughout the world in response to a dramatic increase in corn prices. The White House blamed the increase on rising food demand from fast-growing China and India .5 Others disagreed. World Bank president Robert Zoellick acknowledged that by early 2008 it was evident that biofuel demand had become a “significant contributor” to grain price escalations , which put thirty-three countries at risk for social upheaval .6 Washington was dismayed, maintaining that biofuel demand was responsible for less than 3 percent of the price increase —bad news for Zoellick, as the United States was the World Bank’s major donor. Zoellick immediately backpedaled by sequestering a confidential report that the World Bank had painstakingly prepared to research the price shock. But the report did not remain secret for long. An informant leaked it to the Guardian that summer.7 The report’s authors concluded that biofuel demand was actually responsible for a hefty 75 percent of the food price jump. To some, converting arable fields over to fuel crops was especially troubling given that much of the resulting biofuel would eventually burn away in inefficient vehicles driving through inefficient transport systems. The head of the International Food Policy Research...


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MARC Record
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