Ethanol and the Food vs. Fuel Debate

Enthusiasm for flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) began to grow last year — around the same time people started to get excited about plug-in hybrids. We and others had been making the case that powering local miles with electricity gets you 100+MPG (of gasoline, then electricity). And we were happy to agree that evolving the "range extension" fuel to E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) could get us 500 MPG (of gasoline, plus electricity, plus ethanol) cars. Of course, we were looking ahead to cellulosic ethanol that would be a major environmental and efficiency win over today’s ethanol.

However, car-makers picked up only on the "ethanol-now" idea. They hoped that “doing their part" by building more FFVs might let them off the fuel efficiency hook — after all, it’s not their fault there are only a few hundred fueling stations. And they hoped for kudos for investing in the booming ethanol business. As a bonus, they’d continue to get fleet efficiency credits for FFVs most people can’t use. (Despite the loophole and the free pass, because cars stay on the roads a long time, we still think all cars built from now on should be flex-fuel-capable.)

Compare this to the case for plugging in: no new infrastructure needed, available technology, abundant nighttime electricity. It’s also the only way to reduce the amount of ethanol needed to fuel the US passenger fleet from 140 billion gallons/year to 40 billion — unless we envision everyone pledging to cut their yearly driving to 3,000 miles. (See our 120V+E85 handout.)

The case for ethanol as a near-term solution is also flawed because today’s US ethanol comes from corn. Agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill (and presidential candidates whose careers are made and broken in Iowa’s cornfields) shape US agricultural policies. Now they are effectively partners with auto-makers on the ethanol bandwagon. Ethanol gets subsidies at the cornfield plus 51 cents/gallon at the pump. And it benefits from tariff walls against imported ethanol from sugar. (Sugar is far more efficient than corn in producing ethanol, but there is currently no significant sugar-to-ethanol industry in the US, though companies like Altra plan to do so in places like California’s economically-underdeveloped Inland Empire.) See the reports of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and discussions at Green Car Congress.

If you want to learn the whole extraordinary story of corn’s role in the economy, I can’t recommend highly enough the first 100 pages of Michael Pollan’s "The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," which traces the plant’s evolution from rotating field crop to industrial product that lies at the heart of what is literally a sickening economy, where natural renewable systems are converted into unmanageable global pollution and health problems. This book joins Lester Brown’s "Plan B," William McDonough’s "Cradle to Cradle" and the new #1 paperback best-seller, Al Gore’s "Inconvenient Truth" on my must-read list.

Most importantly, the original expectation we’d use a fuel from renewable sources — cellulosic ethanol from waste products — has been eclipsed in the rush to build up corn and sugar ethanol. For more about cellulosic ethanol, see the NRDC report, "Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can Help End America’s Oil Dependence" and the presentations at venture investor Vinod Khosla’s website.

The visionary Lester Brown has been one of the most powerful voices making the case that we’re on a perilous path if we build out the market for food-based ethanol. See our CalCars-News Archive reprint of his forceful opinion piece from this week’s Fortune Magazine, and excerpts from his enlightening talk on NPR Science Friday.

A few quick excerpts from "Ethanol Could Leave the World Hungry:"

The growing myth that corn is a cure-all for our energy woes is leading us toward a potentially dangerous global fight for food.

We are facing an epic competition between the 800 million motorists who want to protect their mobility and the two billion poorest people in the world who simply want to survive. In effect, supermarkets and service stations are now competing for the same resources.

Already commodity prices are rising. Sugar prices have doubled over the past 18 months (driven in part by Brazil’s use of sugar cane for fuel), and world corn and wheat prices are up one-fourth so far this year.

Once stimulated solely by government subsidies, biofuel production is now being driven largely by the runaway price of oil. Many food commodities, including corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and sugar cane, can be converted into fuel; thus the food and energy economies are beginning to merge.

There are truly guilt-free alternatives to using food-based fuels. The equivalent of the 3% of U.S. automotive fuel supplies coming from ethanol could be achieved several times over – and at a fraction of the cost – by raising auto fuel-efficiency standards by 20%. (Unfortunately Detroit has resisted this, preferring to produce flex-fuel vehicles that will burn either gasoline or ethanol.)

Or what if we shifted to gas-electric hybrid plug-in cars over the next decade, powering short-distance driving, such as the daily commute or grocery shopping, with electricity?

By investing not in hundreds of wind farms, as we now are, but rather in thousands of them to feed cheap electricity into the grid, the U.S. could have cars running primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

Clearly, solutions exist. The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging food-fuel battle. As the world’s leading grain producer and exporter, as well as its largest producer of ethanol, the U.S. is in the driver’s seat.

Felix is an entrepreneur with a life-long green streak. He enjoys communicating his enthusiasm about what is new, unique, and significant. He is the founder of, The California Cars Initiative, and has been promoting 100+ MPG plug-in hybrids full-time since 2001. He posts his own selection of significant developments for PHEVs at the CalCars News Archive. His first entry at Hybrid Cars, Car Owners Strap into the Drivers Seat, in August 2005, expressed his view that the industrial world is in the midst of a major change — hopefully, it is not too late!

  • Guest

    Several problems with this piece.

    First, lack of E85 fueling stations is no reason not to build FFVs. We live in, and indeed owe our very lifestyle to, a free market economy. You can’t expect fuel retailers to install E85 pumps when there are no cars on the road that can burn E85. Therefore, if we’re ever to have widespread availability of the fuel, it is necessary to build the cars that can burn it. The same argument can be made with respect to renewable electrical energy. If the demand for electricity is increased, such as by building cars that can run on it (which the federal government is heavily funding right now), the availability of renewable energy (wind, solar, and nuclear) will follow naturally.

    Second, if we are going to insist on letting the government impose fuel economy restrictions on automobiles — something they are technically not permitted to do — then you have to allow the car companies to receive the agreed upon credit for producing those vehicles. That is just common sense.

    Third, increasing fuel economy is not like flipping a switch. Increasing fuel economy by 20% is not necessarily even possible. Huge technological breakthroughs would need to be made in order to allow this to happen while still maintaining safety requirements. Yes, you could build a car entirely of plastic and have it be 20% more efficient than today’s most efficient models (at least if the driver weight under a hundred pounds and was carrying no cargo or passengers). But such a car could not legally be driven on US roads for safety reasons, and if it for some reason did make it onto the roads, the manufacturer would soon be sued out of existence by the families of their dead customers.

    And finally, while it is a very promising short-term technology, *commercially viable* plug-in HEVs are NOT available with current technology. Sufficient battery capacity using current technology is too large, heavy, and expensive. Sure, you could build a PHEV using current technology like some Prius owners have done, but you lose your trunk and spend an extra 10k doing it. That means it’s possible using current technology. But possible and economically viable are two completely different things. Since we’re talking about relatively small individual impact, mass adoption is required to have a meaningful impact. And mass adoption requires not just possibility, but economic viability.

    Of course, things are changing now almost weekly. Bush is investing a ton of money into battery technology, and private industry is investing even more. Toyota and Ford are both looking at PHEVs, offering the hope that by the time the batteries required for economic viability are actually available, at least one of these will have a design ready to employ them.

    Meanwhile, the feds are working on a hydraulic hybrid design (actually ready to be commercialized, I hear), and another private endeavor is working on a compressed-air hybrid, which use compressed fluid in a tank for storage rather than electricity in a battery. Results have supposedly been promising.

    It is not constructive to examine each alternative as if it were a standalone solution and shoot it down based on it’s weaknesses. No, we probably can’t grow enough biomass to completely replace our petroleum usage while continuing to feed the world. But we don’t have to. It is also not constructive to point the finger of blame at those who haven’t done anything wrong just because you don’t like them. The notion that car companies are doing something wrong by building FFVs just because there is not yet wide availability of E85, and because it’s not a very expensive upgrade, is stupid. They not only have the right, but the responsibility to do the things that give the biggest bang for the buck. Ultimately, that $400 for making a car an FFV, or the $10k for making it PHEV, or the who-knows-how-much to make it 20% more efficient without also making it a death trap, comes out of the pocket of those who buy the car, not the manufacturer.

  • mhspecter

    A serious omission on the corn- to- ethanol debate is the fact that most of the energy input to making ethanol in this way comes from natural gas. As such, ethanol based on natural gas input is not a renewable enrgy source as the supplies of natural gas are finite, perhaps very finite. Additionally, since natrual gas produces CO2, it is a greenhouse gas contributor. Some scientists have calculated that ethanol from corn /natural gas only reduces the CO2 production by about 13% relative to gasoline…not all that attractive.
    The silver bullet mentality that has gripped some people about ethanol from corn either reflects ignorance, greed, or just an indicator how desperate some have become, now that they realize how serious our energy shortage is.

  • rogerntucker

    Before you promote venture investor Vinod Khosla’s; you should do a little more homework on the current state of cellulosic ethanol. Vapor energy seems as easy to sell as vapor software. See the notes at: My summary: this technology may possibly help someday to fill a small percentage of our liquid fuel problem but it’s not yet ready for very large production and definitely will not replace fossil fuel use anytime soon… Also, you cannot stop the production of ethanol from corn production in a free economy nor from people starving to death because of lack of food, but at least we shouldn’t subsidies it! (I’m sure someone will be driving there SUV down the interstate on E85 someday while someone else in the world starves because lack of food — this is already happening because of high oil prices in areas of the world that can no longer afford oil for farming or food distribution. E85 isn’t even needed – even if we used up the total corn production of the US, we could still not provide E10 for every gallon of gas we currently use. So, how about an idea that can work — Instead of trying to keep our millions of cars running, (which is impossible for most people without cheap fossil energy – do the math; we need to start now to promote and build public electric train transportation starting yesterday. We also need to start talking about and funding population control and birth control in all areas of the world including the US. We either need to do this or nature will. Very few people realize that in the last 100 years we will have used up about ½ of all the oil it took tens of thousands of years of solar energy to store up. My recommendations: Live on 1/2 of what you make, be flexible and don’t fight it – because the end of the oil age is coming in your life-time, move close enough to work that you could walk or ride your bike, and last but not least remember to smile and be happy; because when our borrowed way of life starts becoming due that may get somewhat difficult. :-)

  • info

    Off topic: interesting that you have “Plan B” on your must read list. Are you saying that because you personally feel the need to read it, or because you are promoting the book to your readers. If the latter, would you please take a moment to explain what about “Plan B” you found to be so valuable. Thank you.

  • emilmoller

    5 points:

    1. since problems can only be solved by going at least one level up, I suggest

    2. in order to see clearly, the underlying structures should be explored. is a good start

    3. since cellulose ethanol is not yet here and direct action is expedient, focus on bio methanol seems logical.

    Think of using the next 15 years for changing the $100bln forest mis management problem in Minnesota ( into $120 worth of bio methanol, by sustainable forest exploitation (where the latter trem has unfitting overtones; it’s man harvesting in harmony with nature).

    Think also of the promising methanol fuel cell (

    4. re drive train effeciency:

    5. PHEV’s fit the picture of a sustainable future, especially since they seem well positioned to inspire China, India & all other industrializing regions, due to their elegant line of thought.

  • cbaronhj7

    Herschel -

    Sorry, but your assesment is umm… wrong. Most of the energy input to making ethanol comes from a process I like to refer to as “photosynthesis”. True there is energy required to plant and process the corn as well as in the distillation process, but this amounts to small portion of the energy that is created.

    Herschel people like you have the “silver bullet” mentality – along with most of the bloggers on this site. No one in the bio fuels crowd is telling everyone else to take their ideas and go home. Ford is working on both PHEVs and bio-fuel technology. Now I seriousely doubt that ethanol will be an end all solution. In fact I think that E85 is setting the bar a little high… but E50 or something along those lines is perfectly attainable for the mass market.

  • gman5541

    I get what Kramer is saying. E85 is a good alternative, but it won’t solve the root cause of our problems: We are simply using too damn much oil. The issue won’t be solved by replacing that overuse with using what we eat. The solution is already there in front of us. Either we design or make Hybrid vehicles, fully electric cars or in the distant future, Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

  • Guest

    I think Herschel was referring to the use of natural gas to produce anhydrous ammonia, the key fertilizer for high yield corn crops. Right now corn does use a lot of natural gas, but not enough to really say “most” of the energy. Also, there are many alternative ways to raise ethanol producing crops.

  • Guest

    Where Tony been?

    Some good points but some very misleading/misguided in my opinion. :-) ASAP, I personally would like to see a diesel-hybrid that can run on ethanol/vegetable oil/etc and plug-in would be nice… Everyone is realizing hybrids are not the final solution but is definitely a step in the right direction. :-)

    While I agree with:
    ‘It is not constructive to examine each alternative as if it were a standalone solution and shoot it down based on it’s weaknesses.’

    We should not employ something that is highly likely only going to make things worst! From what I been reading, ethanol is not a bad choice but corn-based ethanol is.

    Point 1.) Do you really expect consumers to buy a car and can’t drive it because there is no fuel? Fueling stations would have to exist before wide-acceptance occurs and this is an area government should help. Of course, FFV can run on 100% gasoline just fine. We definitely should be looking at other source of energy.

    Point 2.) Ideally, government wouldn’t have to do anything which include letting gas and food prices go as high as they can, etc. ;-) Maybe everyone will just grow corn instead!

    Point 3.) True but there is a lot of studies finding all the improvement for the past 10~20 years have been put towards heavier vechiles so is not like the technology is not there. Plastic cars… we could limit the speed limit to 5 mph?! Better now. :-) Even less boxy cars can improve fuel economy a lot but that is what American consumers wanted when gas was cheap. Still Ford and GM responded way too slow to changing demand.

  • n81010


    I think conservation is the key in tackle the oil problem and it is definitely not a bad ideal to improve the fuel economy. Your view that ” Increasing fuel economy by 20% is not necessarily even possible. ” unless hugh technology break through seem to be a bit extreme as hybrid car do improve fuel efficiency more than that and the technology have been there at least since 1997. And they have very good safety feature as well. Besides, just compare the mileage of Japanese cars to the big three’s and you’ll see the problem here. Lai


    Apparently we need to continually remind ourselves that no single renewable energy scheme is going to satisfy all our renewable energy needs. And also that multiple types of renewable energy technologies work quite well together and can even compliment each other working side-by-side.

    It’s fortunate that ethanol, biodiesel, photovoltaics, wind turbines, and other systems can all be employed at the same time and actually complement each other. It’s unfortunate that the monetary power of the US is not being spent on renewable energy research and is instead being drained away to pay for other very non-renewable activities.

    Ramping up corn won’t make it. Fertilizer runoff from upstream cornfields has already been blamed for rapidly spreading “dead areas” in coastal regions. Killing off our oceans won’t help our national security a whole lot.