Stealing From The Mouths Of Babes

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

I just read a story from Nature about a new source of bioethanol—brown algae. I’m a fan of biofuel production, because it combines the passions I had when starting to get into science: genetic engineering and agriculture (sometimes).

But this particular article irked me in the first sentence. Click on the link above. Go ahead, click it. Read the first sentence. I’ll wait.

No, I lied. I won’t wait. Here’s the first sentence:

Bioengineers have devised a way to produce ethanol from seaweed, laying the groundwork for a biofuel that doesn’t sacrifice food crops.
Most bioethanol comes from sugar cane and corn, the article later mentions. And then makes another couple of related statements:
Many researchers are exploring ways to produce ethanol without using food crops such as sugar cane or maize (corn), and have turned to different feedstocks including switchgrass, the succulent plant jatropha, cyanobacteria and green algae. However, producing biofuels from sugar cane or maize not only detracts from food supplies, but also takes up huge areas of arable land. In the case of maize, more energy is required for growing and harvesting the crop than can be gained from the ethanol produced.
I can’t figure out what to say about this. I mean, the research is cool, I like hearing about new people doing new things to address this old problem of sustainable production of bioethanol, because the author is right—corn et alia take up a huge amount of arable land and require way too much energy to grow and harvest for the amount of fuel we get from them. That’s why switchgrass and other crops and organisms have hit the scene, because they are more amenable to nonarable land.

But the corn used in ethanol production is not corn that would ever reach our table. In fact, most corn (80%) in the US never reaches our table, anyhow—it goes to cows and other livestock. Only 12% of corn ends up in human food—which includes corn syrup, taco shells, and the like, as well as fresh ears fulls of perfectly plump, unmarred kernels. There are different types of corn for different purposes. Grocery-store corn, at least the fresh kind that you shuck with your family at home for a nice barbeque in the summer, is also probably not the kind that is used for high-fructose corn syrup or even tortilla chips, and none of those corns are the same corns used to produce ethanol. Each corn variety needs a different profile of chemicals—more sugar, different enzymes—to make it appealing for the purpose it’s destined for.

So, no, corn-based ethanol does not take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans. What it does do, however, is take up land that could be used to grow different varieties of corn (or other crops) that might end up in our bellies, either through the meat we eat or directly as a vegetable.

It’s all about the land, baby—that, and the cost. Corn is not a viable biofuel producer, on that the author and I agree. But the argument that using corn to generate ethanol is stealing food from Americans? No more so than attempts to eradicate dandelion, which is totally edible. (The point being that although people could stick these things in their mouths and chew on it, it’s not really grown to be eaten.)

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