Is Ethanol Ethical?
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Imagine this scenario: you’ve got a bushel of corn in front of you, and you have to decide what to do with it.
One option is to turn that corn into ethanol, so you can continue to go to and from work in order to feed your family for the next week.
The other option is to give it to the hungry person on your left. The amount of grain it would take to fill your SUV with ethanol could feed that person for a full year (source: Time Magazine)
So what do you do?
This simple scenario is at the heart of the Food Vs. Fuel debate that’s currently being discussed all over the world. Ethanol processing plants are being built all over the country, and yet many people are not convinced that using food to fuel our cars is a good idea.
In this article we’ll take a look some of the ethical debates of using ethanol as a fuel source.
Issue #1: Ethanol Production Increases Food Prices
It’s simple economics: when demand rises, prices go up.
Unfortunately, however, many billions of people in the world cannot pay for this increase as the price of corn skyrockets. As more and more corn is converted into ethanol to fuel our cars, this means less and less for exports. Which, in turn, means those exports keep getting more expensive.
So, is it ethical for us to use food, which could be feeding millions of hungry people, to fuel our vehicles?
Some people say yes: it’s our corn, and we can do what we want with it.
Other say no, that we have a moral obligation to export that corn to feed people who really need the nourishment.
Whether or not it’s right or wrong, the simple fact is that using corn as fuel skyrockets the price of that commodity. In the past few years corn prices quadrupled, but have since come back down somewhat. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg; use of ethanol is still putting pressure on corn prices. Additionally, because farmers are having to pay drastically higher prices for feed corn they’re having to raise the price on dairy and beef products.
For people on limited incomes, this means they have to buy less food.
Issue #2: Using Ethanol For Fuel Would Increase Toxic Fumes
According to a study done by chemist Mark Jacobson at Standford, and as published by US News and World Report, transitioning to ethanol from gasoline is not going to make our atmosphere any cleaner. In fact, it might even make things worse.
The good news about ethanol is that it would reduce greenhouse gasses. The bad news? Burning ethanol puts dangerous carcinogens in the air, like Aldehyde and Acetaldehyde, both which have been linked with cancer.
Jacobson is predicting that deaths from air pollution would actually go up slightly with the increased use of ethanol.
Issue #3: There’s No Major Energy Gain With Ethanol
According to MIT Researchers, ethanol doesn’t offer us any big savings when it comes to energy.
It’s called “Energy Returned On Energy Invested” (EROEI). Basically, it’s the balance sheet that details how much energy you’re putting into growing and harvesting the corn, and then turning it into fuel, versus how much energy you’re getting back once that corn is a source of fuel.
For ethanol to be efficient it needs to offer us a greater return on the energy we put in. And, this energy return has been hotly debated all over the world.
Stop and think about the time and energy it takes to grow corn. You need tons of land. You need seeds, and rain, and plenty of fertilizer. Then you need diesel chugging tractors to prep the land, and harvest the corn when it’s ready (these tractors often only get 4 mpg, and they’re cutting thousands of acres of corn).
Then you need more diesel chugging trucks to lug that corn to the nearest processing facility, where even more energy is expended to turn it into ethanol.
So, how do the scales tip?
Well, the MIT researchers report that the scales are almost even on the EROEI. Which means the energy we’re putting into growing and making ethanol is almost exactly even with how much energy we’re getting out of it.
On the other hand, as reported in “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: an Update” put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the scales are tipped much higher. The USDA feels that ethanol gives us a gain of 34%.
And, some scientists feel that we’re actually losing energy with ethanol, that we’re expending more energy to grow and convert it than we get back as fuel.
There’s no definitive source that has a right answer here, since so many factors come into play. But the broader question is that if we’re losing energy, or even breaking even, is it ethical for us to continue when the lack of available corn worldwide might be causing other people to starve?
Issue #4: Increased Use of Ethanol Creates A Domino Effect
According to Time Magazine, ethanol production is actually doing more to accelerate global warming than it’s doing to slow it down.
Here’s how it’s happening:
U.S. farmers are now selling 1/5 of their corn for ethanol production. Because the price of corn has gone up so much, U.S. soybean farmers are switching to growing corn.
Well, this means we have less soybeans here so farmers in South America are growing more soybeans to make up for the difference. But, they need more land, so they’re chopping down even more rainforest in order to convert it to farmland. At the end of 2007, a Rhode-Island sized chunk of rainforest was destroyed in Brazil to make room for farmland.
And scientists feel that the burning, and its effects, are going to change the local microclimate there so much that one day the Amazon will resemble a desert or savannah.
This is just one of the domino effects that are occurring because of ethanol.
There’s no doubt that there are some very serious debates when it comes to ethanol. The issue is far from being decided, but it’s up to all of us to look at the broader implications of using food for fuel.
How far are we willing to go to power our cars? How many other people will have to pay this steep price? And what environmental consequences will result from our actions?