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Ethanol Is a Disaster, But What About Other Biofuels?

In the midst of corn ethanol's failing, researchers may have found a new hope for biofuel -- just in time.

A recent television ad features an animated corn stalk saying in a nasally, child-like voice: "Ethanol decreases carbon emission by a lot -- that's good for the environment and the air we breathe. Hey, if those Indy race cars are usin' it, there must be somethin' to it! Ethanol: good for your car, the environment and America!" The ethanol industry seems to have a lot to brag about these days: Corn, one of the U.S.' largest commodities, is a staple food for many countries and has been a hope for many wishing to relieve America's dependence on foreign oil with "green" biofuel.

The National Corn Growers Association calls corn-based ethanol the "greatest success story in modern agriculture." And why would they not be likely to make such a claim? With all the hype that corn ethanol is receiving from the media and politicians, ethanol seems to promise a panacea for many of the important issues our nation (and world) is facing. Ethanol enthusiasts boast that farming corn will provide thousands of jobs, will allow America to gain energy independence and decrease carbon emissions.

But recently critics have argued that corn ethanol's "green" image is only a façade and the conviction that it can alleviate our energy problem is a false hope, blown out of proportion by the media and America's eager desire for a cure-all. The idea that a single resource -- and moreover, one we have a surplus of -- could single-handedly fix the economy, our dependence on foreign oil and global warming itself is an alluring, but elusive, promise.

The problem is finding a more accessible, economical and sustainable solution to corn. The potential for cellulosic biofuel has been acknowledged for years, but there hasn't been enough funding available to develop it because too much energy has been directed at promoting the corn craze. Cellulosic (nonfood) forms of ethanol such as perennial grasses and woodchips emit two to three times less carbon than corn ethanol. Now we just need to redirect or focus. 

It might lessen our environmental guilt to say we're using "green" biofuel (life fuel!). But the reality is the end product of corn ethanol releases only slightly less carbon than gasoline (less than two percent) and consequences such as soil erosion and increased food price are drastic. But at least our intention is good: America has -- finally -- reached a consensus that we are in an energy and environmental crisis, which is undoubtedly a giant step in the right direction after years of denial.

Unfortunately, we're discovering that dramatic inflation of corn production is having numerous negative effects on the environment. The monoculture corn is cultivated in requires immense amounts of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and petrochemicals. And the fertilizers used contain high levels of nitrogen, contributing to mass soil erosion and "dead zones," such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the Mississippi River dumps so much agricultural waste into The Gulf that the concentration of nitrogen restricts oxygen levels in the water so nothing can live there. This particular dead zone is expanding beyond the size of New Jersey and more are popping up where there's excessive agricultural runoff.

Aside from the destruction nitrogen causes soil, many experts are concerned that using corn for ethanol instead of food will perpetuate our world's hunger problem. Using farmable land to feed our energy-hungry nation rather than hungry people is not in anyone's interest. Vic Smith, a biologist at the Naturalist Center of the California Academy of Sciences and environmental science instructor at College of Marin in Northern California, says, "It is a legitimate concern to worry about the possibility of increased food shortages, higher food prices and increased world hunger if the world's focus is to concentrate on creating energy from edible biomass [food]."

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