The New Ethanol Debate: Food v. Fuel

The ethanol debate sometimes seems like "Field of Dreams." It's the same today that it was ten years ago and there's lots of ...
by | September 7, 2006

Ethanol_1 The ethanol debate sometimes seems like "Field of Dreams." It's the same today that it was ten years ago and there's lots of cornfields involved.

But, when I scratched under the surface for my September feature story on biofuels, I discovered that some things are changing. Most notably, the impressive growth of the American ethanol industry over the past few years has, at least to some degree, shifted the debate away from the traditional points of contention -- whether the fuel has environmental and net energy benefits -- and to a newer question: Could ethanol prove too successful?

For example, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that increasing demand for ethanol threatens world food supplies. High fuel prices make it more and more profitable to convert food crops to fuel.

Brown cites research that indicates that if every planned ethanol production facility in Iowa is actually constructed, nearly the entire corn crop in the state would be used for fuel. He worries that the corresponding increase in food prices could have disastrous consequences for people in poorer countries.

Groups like the Renewable Fuels Association disagree. They say that most of the corn going to ethanol isn't the variety that people usually eat and that technological innovations will allow supply to keep up with food and fuel demand.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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