Advertisement

Will alternative fuels deplete global corn supplies?

Will corn be our savior or ultimate destroyer? See more corn pictures.
Carroll & Carroll/First Light/Getty Images

­If you've ever read Stephen King's­ short story "The Children of the Corn," or watched any of the eight (yes, eight!) horror films it spawned, then you know just how creepy a vast field of corn can be. The titular children in the story go on a murderous rampage, terrorizing and murdering hapless adults in the name of "He Who Walks Behind the Rows."

In the past, you may have laughed at the prospect of a corn-based ­entity spreading chaos and death. But amid current headlines about corn-based ethanol, global food shortages and the dietary effects of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), it's easy to feel a little apprehensive about living a life so increasingly dependent on those monotonous fields of swaying gold.

Advertisement

­To break down the situation into the simplest terms, imagine a family of four living in the suburbs. Each week, they receive two commoditi­es: a t­ank of gasoline and a crate of corn. In the mornings and afternoons, they use the gasoline to commute to work, go to school and run errands. The corn, on the other hand, winds up in most of their meals, be it in the form of tortillas, chowder or all the HFCS in little Jimmy's favorite candies and sodas. Eventually, they begin to receive less and less gasoline each month, but the supply of corn remains the same. Luckily, the corn can be processed into fuel for the automobile. Now this hypothetical family has to both fuel the car and feed themselves from the crate of corn. What are they to do?

In the late 17th century, England faced a similar situation. Timber was a vital commodity. The English used it to build ships for trade and defense, but firewood also was essential to cooking, heating and manufacturing. All the competing calls for wood caused a timber shortage, which led to a major fuel shift to coal.

In 2007, corn crops were responsible for 7.1 billon gallons (26.9 billion liters) of ethanol, according to an article by C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer that appeared in the Foreign Affairs journal. Studies suggest that by 2030, we could be squeezing out 33 billion gallons (125 billion liters) of ethanol. It takes more than 450 pounds (204 kilograms) of corn to fill a 25-gallon (94-liter) gas tank with ethanol -- that's enough calories to feed one person for an entire year [source: Runge]. Will we wind up taking corn out of hungry mouths in the process?

Read the next page to find out.

While turning corn into gasoline may sound like a feat worthy of King Midas, not everyone thinks the ethanol industry has the golden touch.
While turning corn into gasoline may sound like a feat worthy of King Midas, not everyone thinks the ethanol industry has the golden touch.
N. Beckerman/Stone/Getty Images

There's a certain poetic irony to the idea of modern society breaking free from its dependence on dwindling fossil fuels only to starve millions due to ethanol production. After all, it falls right in line with our human habit of trading one vice for another. We quit drinking and just wind up buying more cigarettes. We beat our nicotine addictions only to rediscover junk food. It seems only natural that humanity might take an unsustainable thirst for petroleum and exchange it for an equally ravenous hunger for ethanol.

In 2008, rising food costs resulted in government tariffs, trade restrictions and social unrest in parts of the developing world. Food riots in Haiti even proved lethal. Food prices had tripled in the previous three years, and financial forecasts called for an additional 7 percent rise in 2009 [source: Fox News]. When it came to placing blame, no single scapegoat presented itself. Rather, a host of reasons for the spiraling costs of food presented themselves, including increased consumption, floods, droughts, pests, rising petroleum costs and a struggling global economy.

The most talked-about culprit, however, was the increased demand for biofuels such as ethanol. Ethanol is typically made from varieties of corn you'd never find on your dinner plate. These varieties of inedible corn are instead intended for use as livestock feed or the production of high fructose corn syrup. So ethanol eats up corn that could otherwise support the meat industry or, to a lesser extent, the nutrient-free world of candy and sodas. In addition, those same fields could be used to grow edible corn and other food crops.

In the United States, the demand for corn rose from 10.6 billion bushels in 2004 to an estimated 12.7 billion bushels in 2008 [source: Christopherson]. Over those four years, food demand slid from 7.6 to 6.7 billion bushels, while ethanol demand rose from 1.2 to 4 billion bushels [source: Christopherson]. As the United States produces between 60 and 70 percent of world corn exports, this kind of fluctuation can have quite an impact, such as influencing April 2008's record high price of $6.03 per bushel, up 30 percent from the beginning of the year [source: Gioia].

Those are some frightening figures, especially if you live in a country where a large­ percentage of your income goes to ensure your food supply. Some analysts, however, think change is just around the corner.

An oil well operates in the middle of a cornfield. Will engines of the future depend on either of these sources?
An oil well operates in the middle of a cornfield. Will engines of the future depend on either of these sources?
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A lot of the world depends on U.S. corn exports, and it doesn't take a genius to realize the potential dangers of the corn sector catering increasingly to the ethanol industry. The more corn that's grown exclusively for the biofuel industry, the less there is to feed people and livestock.

­Biofuel manufacturers and advocates attempt to dispel these fears by saying that their industry is ­still in a very early stage. They point to a future where, instead of turning potential food crops into fuel, we'll process inedible agriculture waste. If this happens, corn ethanol of the future may be produced from stems and stalks, while the actual corncobs go on to feed hungry mouths.

Others argue that future biofuel called cellulosic ethanol will be made from fast-growing trees and switch grass. Critics of this move, such as Eric Holt-Giménez, director of the Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy, contend that this approach amounts to more of a "faith in science" than actual science, and that the sustainability of cellulosic ethanol isn't a foregone conclusion. Cellulosic ethanol is still several years and various technological advancements away -- and even then it might not give us the carbon savings we're hoping for. Holt-Giménez says that, by perpetuating the idea that second-generation biofuels will save the day, manufacturers make it socially acceptable to pit fuel production against food production.

Whatever we choose to do in the long run, there's still the short-term possibility of a depleted global corn supply to consider. Amid government subsidies for corn farmers and recent rising crop prices, some foresee a future where our dependence on corn breaks us, while others predict that it will be the corn industry that goes bust.

Toward the end of 2008, the corn industry seemed more inclined to bust. Corn futures took a sharp dive, landing nearly 51 percent below their all-time high in June of the same year. Analysts placed the blame on several factors, including a fall in crude oil prices, which had reached an 18-month low, and hurting demand for alternative fuels [source: Inside Futures].

Still other corn critics predict that concerns over rising health care costs will force a large-scale dietary move away from high fructose corn syrup, which accounts for 10 percent of the calories Americans consume [source: Christopherson]. Factor in the milled corn in junk food, and corn products stack up to be a leading cause of obesity and diabetes. Even if Americans don't rise up against junk food, there have already been rumblings that major soda manufacturers may switch from HFCS to sugar, due to corn's costs and sugar's greener profile [source: Rano].

The ethanol industry hasn't depleted global corn supplies yet, but it has put a strain on them. Going forward, the industry faces an uncertain future. Is cellulosic ethanol right around the corner? Will the ethanol industry continue to slide due to lower demands? Only time will tell.

Explore the links on the next page to learn more about ethanol, corn and the global food market.­

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Christopherson, Paul. "Corn and Its industry: The Next Tobacco." Seeking Alpha. Oct. 27, 2008. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://seekingalpha.com/article/102132-corn-and-its-industry-the- next-tobacco
  • Clark, Ronald W. "Works of Man: A History of Invention and Engineering, from the Pyramids to the Space Shuttle." Viking Penguin Inc. 1985.
  • "U.S. Food Prices Predicted to Rise 7 Percent in 2009." Fox News. Nov. 7, 2008. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,448424,00.html
  • Gioia, Vincent. "Global Warming: Ethanol and the Price of Corn." National Ledger. April 9, 2008. (Nov. 10, 2008) 
  • Goodman, David J. "As Ethanol Options Grow, So Does Debate Over Them." The New York Times. Sept. 21, 2008.
  • "Grains Outlook." Inside Futures. Nov. 7, 2008. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://www.insidefutures.com/article/86572/Grains%20Outlook.html
  • Holt-Giménez, Eric. "Food First Backgrounder: Biofuels -- Myths of the Argo-fuels Transition." Food First. July 6, 2007. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://www.foodfirst.org/node/1711
  • "Modern Ethanol Industry Has Superior Environmental and Economic Profile Versus Gasoline." Market Watch. Oct. 28, 2008. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story/Modern-Ethanol-Industry- Has-Superior/story.aspx?guid={399B8EA9-E426-409F- 9176-32AF2A262633}
  • Rano, Linda. "Major HFCS users unlikely to ditch it for sugar, expert." Confectionary News. May 7, 2008. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://www.confectionerynews.com/Formulation/Major-HFCS-users- unlikely-to-ditch-it-for-sugar-expert
  • Runge, C. Ford and Benjamin Senauer. " How Ethanol Fuels the Food Crisis." Foreign Affairs. May 28, 2008. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20080528faupdate87376/c-ford- runge-benjamin-senauer/how-ethanol-fuels-the-food-crisis.html
  • Tenenbaum, David J. "Food vs. Fuel: Diversion of Crops Could Cause More Hunger." Environmental Health Perspectives. June 2008. (Nov. 7, 2008) http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2430252
  • Tucker, William. "Food Riots: Made in the USA." Weekly Standard. April 28, 2008. (Nov. 8, 2008) http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000 /015/007jlljc.asp?pg=2

­

Advertisement


Advertisement


Advertisement



Advertisement

Advertisement