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Kansas City Star: Corn no ‘magic bullet’ for energy crisis

WALTER WINCH
Midwest Voices
 
Henry Ford in 1925 said, “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything.”

The father of the mass-produced automobile was 81 years too early in his prediction, but it’s now likely that “weeds” will play some part in fueling our vehicles.

But we should be extremely skeptical of the assorted snake-oil salesmen with their cure-all patent medicine. In the Midwest, the syrupy elixir is ethanol made from corn.

Biofuels, of which ethanol is the best known, are byproducts of once-living organisms, which could include such things as wood, elephant dung or grass. Today biofuels are essentially alcohols that come from crops like sugar cane, soybeans and corn.

Biofuels are “carbon-neutral,” in theory. They don’t supply significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the main greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Corn as fuel is now being touted in the United States. From Wall Street investment firms to bloated agribusinesses, corn has become the latest energy traveling circus.

But like the wizard behind the curtain, much of the ethanol ballyhoo is smoke and mirrors. Some people, however, may become rich because of the public’s gullibility and its apparent unwillingness to even consider a national energy and environmental policy.

We’ve got a lot of corn in America. In fact, corn-based fast foods and the numerous products that contain high fructose corn syrup have helped make America possibly the most obese nation in history. The problem is that corn may be one of the worst plants we could consider as a biofuel.

Although corn is heavily subsidized, courtesy of the American taxpayer, it also uses more synthetic fertilizer than any other crop. The fertilizer comes primarily from natural gas, and nitrogen runoffs cause immense damage to water supplies and aquatic life. Corn also uses a lot of pesticides, which are made from petroleum.

Atrazine, a highly poisonous herbicide — banned by the European Union — is applied in large amounts on American cornfields. The Environmental Protection Agency states it is the second-most-common pesticide in drinking wells.

And even before the corn gets near a distillation plant, it has already used one-third to one-half gallon of gasoline for every bushel of corn grown. More fossil fuel is used when the corn is actually distilled. Cheap, readily available fossil fuel is a rapidly vanishing delusion.

Of course, global corporations like Archer Daniels Midland are salivating at the prospect of turning all that corn into gold. ADM is the largest producer of ethanol (from corn) in the United States. Over the years this company has been found guilty of price fixing, charged with numerous violations of the Clean Air Act, and has had to pay out millions of dollars in fines and settlements. Perhaps most ironic of all is that ADM proposes to produce much of the ethanol in its coal-fired plants, one of the dirtiest forms of energy around.

Reducing our fossil fuel consumption is urgent and long overdue. The obvious first step is an authentic national conservation plan.

Biofuels will become just one of many possible energy alternatives. In the not-too-distant future we may be making ethanol from vegetable cellulose such as switchgrass, which would be far more efficient, less costly and less harmful to the environment than any corn ethanol.

A country with no conservation policy, anxious to find a quick fix for rural America, and guided by some obsolete cartoon capitalism will believe almost anything, even some fairy tale about a new “energy bullet.”

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Walter Winch is a writer, former actor and business owner who lives in Kansas City. To reach Midwest Voices columnists, write to the author c/o the Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108. Or send e-mail to [email protected].

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