The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

The ethanol effect: When alt fuels go bad

with 3 comments

Iowa grows corn. Miles and miles and miles of it. We don’t eat it, of course—it’s not that kind. We feed it to cattle and hogs, and we send it by the trainload to processing plants that make it into that “high-fructose corn syrup” that’s in everything else we eat. Read the labels in your pantry.

And, this year especially (the angst of the times being as it is), we plant corn in every available corner in order to save the planet (and make pretty good money) by selling it to ethanol plants.

Trouble is, it’s a little like tobacco and Kentucky: government subsidies contribute to the growth of something that we’d probably be better off without. Check out MotherJones excellent explanation:

clipped from
EVERYTHING ABOUT ETHANOL IS GOOD, GOOD, GOOD,” crows Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, echoing the conventional wisdom that corn-based ethanol will help us kick the oil habit, line the pockets of farmers, and usher in a new era of guilt-free motoring. But despite the wishes of Iowans (and the candidates courting them) the “dot-corn bubble” is too good to be true.

Click the thumbnail below to see the larger image
The Ethanol Effect
  blog it

And it’s impact on soil conservation is not good.

Corn is a hot potato here in Iowa. Though not a lot of us are still farmers, our friends, our industry, and our economy are linked to corn in a big way. But in the long run, it’ll be a bust. We need another scheme for agriculture, and we need pioneers and politicians and professors who’ll help us get there.

Tags: , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury

Written by Monte

April 3, 2008 at 10:48 am

Posted in Environment, Iowa, Politics

3 Responses

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  1. Hey Monte,
    I was wondering if you had ever heard of a couple things:

    1Have you ever heard that scientists have learned how to use salt water as fuel? I read an article about this a while ago but have not heard it about it since.

    2. Have you heard that it takes several gallons of diesel to make one gallon of ethanol fuel? I heard that somewhere too but I did not know how much truth there is to it.

    Monte Says: Hey, DB, I’m not too sure about either, but I think I have heard that production of corn-based ethanol uses 1.3 gallons of fossil fuel for every 1 gallon of fossil fuel it replaces. That probably means it’s a short-term solution. Other crops – like grasses – may be far better, for they might need much less care, and might re-seed (and have quite a favorable impact on soil erosion and fertility). But we have a huge industry based on corn, and moving to something else will be a massive undertaking.

    I’m like you – I think I’ve heard something about saltwater. Might try searching at Grist.


    April 8, 2008 at 1:27 am

  2. We found an interesting article about the problems with Ethanol on

    “But there are some problems with increasing ethanol blends. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, so increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline will likely result in lower fuel economy. Increasing standard fuel blends from zero to 10 percent ethanol, as is happening today, has little or no impact on fuel economy. In tests, the differences occur within the margin of error, about 0.5 percent. Further increasing ethanol levels to 20 percent reduces fuel economy between 1 and 3 percent, according to testing by the DOE and General Motors. Evaluations are underway to determine if E20 will burn effectively in today’s engines without impacting reliability and longevity, and also assessing potential impact on fuel economy.” would like to invite readers to post their own views and ideas in’s Investor Forum:

    April 4, 2008 at 11:12 am

  3. Hi Monte, I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s *Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Whatever farmers are left would really be better off growing a variety of fruits and vegetables (organically, of course, which, in the long run, turns out to be cheaper…those chemicals are expensive, and actually addictive because of the way they kill off the predator species of insects along with the plant pests), and the way we can all help them do that is by doing our best to buy local produce, direct from the farmers whenever possible.

    Do you know right now 85 cents of every dollar we Americans spend on food actually goes to the folks who handle and ship it (think of all that petrol being burned to bring you tomatoes from California, for example, or grapes from Chile)? It’s insane!

    As with everything, the power to change things is actually in the hands of the consumer…

    Monte Says: Hi HP, good insights! We do see some of that happening. In the last election for Iowa Sec. of Ag, a candidate that favored small, organic, diversified, and local came close to winning against the corporate farming candidate. We’ve been able to buy our own vegetables thru membership in a CSA, and have eaten wonderful heirloom vegetables that we’ve never seen before.

    But it is hard to overestimate the corporate influence pulling the other direction. Massive businesses center around corn and soybean seed sales, around corn and soybean machinery (John Deere, for instance), around chemical treatments, around corn processing, and around transportation. When we have a rain at the end of a dry spell, the auto dealers prepare for a good week. “That was a 20 million dollar rain,” you’ll hear at the coffee shop.

    “As with everything” – yes, you’re right, ultimately, the consumer exerts an enormous influence. But it will involve a wrenching change in the farm state economies – as great as the change from pioneer to family farm; from family farm to corporate farming and farm machine heavy industry to service industry (insurance, for instance, is a big player in Iowa industry). Strangely, though we think of farming as ancient and forever, Iowa wasn’t even a state till 1848; most of the industry as we know it now has developed since (I’d guess) 1980. Everybody’s grandpa was a farmer – but I have no farmers in my church. And they say the breaking of the prairie was the fastest destruction of an entire ecosystem that ever happened in history.

    So, we broke it and we own it, and there’s never, ever been a sustainable model of agriculture practiced by white people in the midwest. Who knows what the future must hold?


    April 3, 2008 at 11:25 am

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