What are Some Issues Surrounding Corn Ethanol Production?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Corn ethanol, a biofuel produced by fermenting and processing corn, has often been touted as an alternative to petroleum-based fuels. However, this wonder fuel has attracted considerable controversy, especially in the wake of its increased popularity, highlighting the fact that there is no simple solution to the need for energy.

Ethanol is made from corn in many places.
Ethanol is made from corn in many places.

One of the key issues involved in producing any type of fuel is how efficient the production is; in other words, how much fuel is yielded per unit of the source. Gasoline may not be an ideal fuel in many ways, but it is extremely efficient, with a very high yield of usable gas per barrel of crude oil. This is not the case with corn; taking into account all of the steps involved in the process, corn ethanol production yields around 30% more energy than is consumed in the process of making the fuel, which is not very impressive.

Ethanol burns more cleanly than standard gasoline, but the process of producing ethanol creates added emissions.
Ethanol burns more cleanly than standard gasoline, but the process of producing ethanol creates added emissions.

Corn in particular is less efficient than crops such as switchgrass, which has led some people to suggest that instead of focusing on corn ethanol production, people should be turning to other base crops to use as fuel. This increase in efficiency would make ethanol a more viable alternative to fuels made from crude oil.

Growing corn that is needed for ethanol takes away resources that could be used to provide food for people.
Growing corn that is needed for ethanol takes away resources that could be used to provide food for people.

Some people have also raised concerns about the environmental costs of corn ethanol production. Ethanol burns more cleanly than gasoline, but when one accounts for all of the emissions created during production, the difference between corn ethanol and gasoline is not very notable. Increases in corn production have also led to concerns about groundwater pollution from fertilizers and excessive water use to irrigate corn crops.

The food versus fuel argument also plays a role in corn ethanol production. Some people have argued that by diverting corn to fuel production, ethanol companies are contributing to hunger and rising fuel prices, especially in the developing world. This is both because usable food in the form of corn is not available, and because fields formerly used for food crops have been dedicated to raising corn to produce ethanol. Rising food prices have been attributed to an increasing demand for corn and other crops from ethanol companies. The tortilla crisis of 2007, in which corn tortilla prices rose radically as corn ethanol production increased, is a prime example of the food versus fuel debate.

The production cost of ethanol is also extremely high when compared to the sale value. Many governments provide subsidies to farmers who raise corn for ethanol production to make it worth their while, a controversial practice.

Use of biofuels in large equipment is common.
Use of biofuels in large equipment is common.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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