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Farmers Guardian: Will bio-ethanol from corn be ‘boom and bust’?

Liz Walker visitor from Britain 

29 June, 2007
Viewpoint: By Liz Walker

Here, in western America, petrol prices are going through the roof. 

Every TV station carries pieces where hard-up, hard-working people tell us just how difficult their lives are because gas is now three dollars 50 a gallon.

In Britain we pay nearer eight dollars, but the comparison isn’t really fair. In the USA, distances are huge and no-one has given a thought to the cost of a mere hundred miles in years. Not since they needed a horse, anyway. 

All of a sudden everyone is talking about alternatives. Bikes are being exhumed and car pools started, although no-one is considering the bus.

A step a long way too far, but the favourite next thing is ethanol produced from corn.

Driving through the corn belt last week, I remembered an old cartoon. A farmer is striding over concrete, past giant barns and huge silos, saying: “They’ll build on this land over my dead body!” – because in places here, corn bins blot out the sun. JCBs load endless wagons and spilt grain glows like golden nuggets in the dust.

Now they think this can make cars run, everyone’s jumping on the band wagon. Even mayors and congressmen are joining speculators to build processing plants, all hoping to make a killing. We shall see.

In America, boom and bust don’t seem to take very long. St Joseph, on the Missouri River, is a ghost city, crammed with collapsing warehouses and beautiful, abandoned mansions. It took just 150 years to go from bare earth, through prosperity to this empty shell, thanks to the railroad, the Civil War and a bridge someone built in Kansas City just down the road. 

Is this the future of those corn processing plants? Or is that just my unadventurous British caution?

America does have a problem curbing personal greed. The gold rush turns out not to have been a pick and shovel affair.

Whole rivers were diverted to blast away mountains, leaving nothing but ruins you can still see today.

Already in the corn belt monoculture rules. There are no trees, no hedges, no weeds and no birds. If a gopher sticks its head up, someone will back a car exhaust over the hole and that gopher is no more. But there’s also unemployment, because these vast acreages are farmed by machines so big they look like monsters coming towards you on the road. No-one objects because this is corn. This is money.

This is also a bandwagon, and we in Britain surely ought to be getting on somewhere. But where?

Already there’s talk of better crops for the job of keeping America driving. The corn processing plants are to run on natural gas, which is no more infinite than oil.

Renewable energy isn’t even thought of here, and even in places where the sun blazes out of the sky for 90 per cent of daylight hours, there is no solar power.

Even windmills look less than serious – there just for the tax breaks people say.

Distant ranches, which used to use wind to pump water, now reach for an electric switch. They’re even trying to rehabilitate coal, with songs like ‘coal’s just a diamond in waiting’.  I vote we send them Arthur Scargill, a diamond in waiting for sure.

There are over 300 million Americans, and hardly any of them gives the environment a thought. I met an Indian who blames the Pope!

“He told the white man that the world was made for him alone. And Americans believed him.” Whether or not the Pope is responsible, they

still believe, despite storms, earthquakes and tornados that would shake the faith of lesser mortals. As a magnificent lady rancher said to me in Texas: “Out here, we have ten inches of rain a year. You shoulda been here the day it fell.”

In comparison with the States, we seem a very sophisticated society. But that does make us so much more cautious. Surely though, if anyone’s going to get cars to run on lettuce, it will be us. All we need is some of that Yankee brass neck.

Out here, ordinary people take chances. They aren’t ashamed of failing, just of not having tried. Perhaps, for once, farmers are being given the opportunity to get in where the money is for a change. Grow it, cook it – win.

• Liz Walker has a smallholding with her husband 1,000ft up in the Pennines in South Yorkshire. She has been a club leader with the YFC for 10 years and has had 18 novels and children’s books published. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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