Don't Replace Fossil Fuels with Corn: Lessons from Ethanol

Don't Replace Fossil Fuels with Corn: Lessons from Ethanol

Posted on Feb 8th 2021

Congress passed a law in 2005 requiring oil companies to blend “renewable fuels” – produced by converting biological material (biomass) into ethanol, biodiesel or other liquid fuels – into vehicle fuels. Two years later, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) further increased the amount of biofuels required to be blended into gasoline. Known as the Renewable Fuel Standard, the legislation required that annual biofuel use increase from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. 

Transportation accounts for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It makes sense that the government would look for ways to curb these emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy. Unfortunately, experts have found through many studies that the proliferation of corn for biofuels has actually resulted in more greenhouse gas emissions than would have been generated otherwise, once accounting for the impact of land conversion.

As EcoEnclose works towards ever more sustainable packaging, we are constantly faced with the question of whether or not to pursue bioplastics. We believe it is essential to learn from the mistakes of Renewable Fuel Standards and the resulting negative consequences of increased corn-based ethanol production.

Let’s not repeat these mistakes in packaging by looking to corn as the right substitute for fossil fuel plastics! With these lessons in mind, we seek bioplastic options that are made from either waste or generative raw materials.

What We Have Learned from Corn Ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standards

  • Land Conversion Ruins Biodiversity and Emits Greenhouse Gases: In 2013, EWG documented that 23 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetland had been plowed under for crop production between 2008 and 2011. Eight million acres were converted to grow corn and another 5.6 million to plant soybeans, because the ethanol mandate pushed up soybean prices as well. This conversion emitted millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the environment. And while RFS explicitly prohibited land conversion to produce corn for ethanol, no regulatory body has actively been monitoring these issues.
  • Corn Production Is Largely Fueled By Petroleum: Growing and harvesting corn for ethanol takes a lot of energy - farm machinery, fertilizers, energy required to convert corn into ethanol, transportation, etc. Studies have shown that 74-95% of the energy content in corn ethanol comes from fossil fuels. In other words, there is only a 5-26% renewable energy “profit.” These studies were conducted in 2006, so while corn may have become more efficient since then, fossil fuels continue to be a major component of corn biofuel production. Environmental, economic, and energetic costs and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels.
  • Corn and Similar Crops Are An Inefficient Way To Make Energy: Bioenergy production from corn is a very inefficient way to use our land. Photosynthesis will efficiently convert sunshine into food. But converting solar radiation into a non-food source of energy is not efficient, such that a lot of land would be required to produce any significant amount of fuel from corn. The World Resources Institute has calculated that providing just 10 percent of the world’s liquid transportation fuel in 2050 would require nearly 30 percent of all of the energy generated by our world’s current levels of crops production.
  • Corn Results in Excessive Nitrogen and Phosphorus Runoff: The EPA has stated that, “nutrient pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water.” When nitrogen and phosphorous flow in excess into our waterways, nutrient pollution occurs – fertilizing the growth of algae and bacteria. The majority of our excess runoff is from chemical fertilizers used on industrial crops, manures and discharges from wastewater treatment facilities. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent surveys on national water quality, nutrient pollution in the United States is a problem in more than one-third of lakes and about half of all rivers and streams. These “algae blooms” are not only disgusting and foul smelling, they have a terrible impact on human health, animal health and biodiversity.
  • The Ethics and Impact of Growing Crops for Non-Food Uses: In 2000, ethanol represented 6 percent of our corn production. In 2013, it represented 40 percent. This is an astonishing amount of crop production getting diverted away from food for animal or human consumption. Because the United States is the world’s top corn producer, this shift has also disrupted global markets for corn and other agricultural commodities. National Research Council studies suggest that the ethanol mandate raised commodity prices by 20 to 40% from 2007 to 2009. This resulted in farmers seeking more land for production, resulting in millions of acres of land-use change.