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Corn fed

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Pretty much everybody, it seems, is writing about ethanol and biodiesel these days. A few years ago, these alternative fuels were the next big things, the substances that were going to liberate us from petroleum dependence and make farmers across the U.S. happy and flush. Now, apparently, they're the ghost in the machine, the seemingly innocuous products that are driving the economy haywire.

Long story short? Alternative fuels such as ethanol (typically blended with gasoline) and biodiesel (sometimes but not always blended with regular diesel) are cleaner-burning than pure petro products. Nice, right? The problem is that, while ethanol and biodiesel can be made more efficiently from non-food products such as switchgrass and algae, nobody is doing much with either. 

And why should they, when they can get federal subsidies for producing alt-fuels from such ordinary food staples as corn (ethanol) and soybeans (biodiesel)? Or buy cheap imports, such as Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane or biodiesel made from palm oil in the South Pacific?

Cheap and easy, of course, usually means expensive and difficult in the long run. Back in February, BusinessWeek reported on the increasing pressures on American farmers to meet the demand for ethanol. CNN pointed out that, natch, using food for fuel means less food available and higher food costs, and that we'll soon start seeing higher prices on milk because of the rising cost of animal feed (i.e., corn). And the Sustainable Table blog chimed in with a wrap-up of recent stories on rising food costs.

CNN also recently ran a report titled "Biofuel: Green savior or red herring?," pointing out that our other sources of alt-fuels aren't so great, either, since creating sugar-cane and palm-tree plantations destroys rainforest. Even cellulosic ethanol, made from switchgrass or leftover forest products, isn't such a wonderful way to make biofuel, as TreeHugger has pointed out.

Tom Philpott, Grist's Victual Reality columnist, has written about the problems with alternative fuels repeatedly, calling ethanol "the biggest greenwash ever." The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy also regularly covers the problems with biofuel.

And in last week's New Yorker, Michael Specter profiled Virgin founder Richard Branson, detailing Branson's latest project: saving the planet with biofuels. Specter wraps up the biofuel bother with a bow:

bq. It would be hard to dispute the promise of biofuels — particularly as a replacement for burning oil and coal. Yet almost any project that is derived from collecting trees, crops, or fibre will require an enormous manipulation of nature . . . The world's forests are already in peril; harvesting trees to make cellulosic ethanol can only make them disappear faster. Few achievements of modern science have been more bitterly disputed than altering the genetic composition of crops for food; to do it for fuel will be no less controversial. The price of corn, sugar, and soybeans is certain to rise if they become powerful sources of energy. Worse yet, each of these crops demands a constant infusion of freshwater — which may be the scarcest commodity of all. Branson is right: if these issues are addressed properly, there could be a new green revolution. But magic bullets are hard to find.