In the movie “Back to the Future,” Doc Brown ran his time traveling Delorean automobile on food scraps. We’ve done him one better: we’re running our cars on food we haven’t yet made.
Every time I fill our family vehicles with gasoline, I can’t help noticing the little sticker on the pump that says it “may” contain up to 10 percent ethanol. Some stickers now omit the word “may.” It does contain 10 percent ethanol.
Since ethanol is less expensive than gasoline, fuel producers say it lowers the price of gas at the pump. That is not necessarily the good deal it at first appears. Ethanol offers significantly lower gas mileage, so even if it costs less, we have to buy more of it to go the same distance.
The lower mileage, promoters say, is offset by the additive’s cleaner burn, a not unimportant factor in making the air we breath actually support human life. On the other hand, even that pollution reduction may be offset by the extra trucks required to haul it to gas stations around the state.
Some research also indicates ethanol is bad for older car engines not designed to use it. That’s why 10 percent is the limit at most gas pumps. Only specially designated later-model vehicles are designed to use E85 – a blend comprising 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline – if they can find it. E85 is not yet universally available.
But the real downside to ethanol shows up at the dinner table.
Corn is used as animal feed – there is a reason beef often is touted as “corn fed.” We humans love it creamed, canned, frozen, popped, and on-the-cob. It is a significant ingredient in many other foods we enjoy, from bread to Hi-C. That relationship between corn and our tables has some food producers concerned, especially since a 2007 federal law seems to protect ethanol production even if the food chain takes a hit.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published estimates of the nation’s corn reserve. Flooding and drought in the major corn-producing areas of the nation’s midwest – remember all the TV coverage of farms under water and pigs swimming for high ground? – have reduced next year’s corn reserves to about 20 days. That federal law – the Renewable Fuel Standard – requires the nation to produce 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel by next year, and 36 billion gallons by 2022. Ethanol, so far, is the renewable fuel of choice.
Some beef producers are worried they will be unable to feed their cattle if another natural disaster cuts the food supply and the feds continue to mandate using it for motor vehicle fuel.
Meanwhile, we continue to export more than half our wheat, and a significant portion of our corn and soybean harvest, to China, India and other third-world and developing nations.
“Today we are in the world market,” Adams County grower Glenn Snyder said Thursday afternoon. “and that makes the biggest difference in the price of grain.”
The former poultry producer raises only grains, in part because there is more profit in raising chicken feed than buying it.
“I’m selling the grain,” he said. “I love it.”
“The developing nations want to eat as well as Americans and they have the money,” he said. “They’re doing all the manufacturing jobs … they’ve got more money now and they’re using it to eat better.”
Russia, normally a major grain exporter to the world market, also has instigated higher grain prices in the past year. The country banned exporting grains in late 2010 after drought and wildfires cut its harvest by nearly 40 percent. That placed more demand on U.S. production, and up went the prices.
Corn prices, not corn availability, have caused some ethanol plants to shut down, at least temporarily. Pennsylvania’s only such plant, in Clearfield, shut down this summer, because of high corn prices. The company, Bionol Clearfield LLC, has filed for bankruptcy.
Those factors, taken together, make corn-based ethanol a bad idea for consumers. Making motor fuel from food-makings is not saving us money at the gas pumps, but is contributing to increased prices at the grocery store. The only good news is that small farmers such as Snyder get to share in the higher prices. When oil prices go up, there are few, if any, small producers who benefit.
Doc Brown had a good idea, sort of. It would be nice to dump leftovers from the Thanksgiving dinner into my Jeep’s engine compartment and be off to the future, from whence I could report on exactly how this motor fuel thing works out.
But there seem too many reasons against using a major component of food yet to be prepared as fuel for our cars. Rather, it would seem now is a good time to focus on something really new – fuel that does not pollute our air, or drive up the cost of a loaf of bread.
Photo by USDAgov
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