Some see a competition between food and fuel as corn growers begin to provide a significant energy source..
Iowa's corn fields may seem like endless green oceans, but if dozens of new corn-to-ethanol biorefineries now in development are all built, they could swallow most of the state's corn crop.
Amid America's rush to replace gasoline with homegrown alternatives like corn-based ethanol, some researchers worry that the results may benefit motorists at the expense of higher food costs and fewer US crop exports. It also raises ethical and environmental questions about the best uses of crop land.
Fresh signs of ethanol's new economic impact are expected soon. After languishing for years, corn prices are projected to rise about 25 percent from around $2.00 a bushel currently to $2.45 a bushel this next crop year, reports the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). But as ethanol demand for corn kicks in, prices could go much higher in the future depending on gasoline prices. Meat and grocery prices could eventually rise as well, some analysts say.
"Ethanol has had huge impact on corn markets," says Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota researcher and coauthor of a study on ethanol's environmental impact published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Science last month. "Competition between food and fuel is growing, along with the environmental consequences as more ethanol facilities are built," the study says.
The drive to produce food-based biofuels is misplaced, because even if all US corn and soybeans were used, they "would meet only 11 percent of gasoline demand and 8.7 percent of diesel demand. There is a great need for renewable energy supplies that do not cause significant environmental harm and do not compete with food supply," the study says.
Such concerns aren't slowing the gold rush. With 101 ethanol biorefineries operating today, the US has 4.8 billion gallons of ethanol-making capacity, says the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), which represents ethanol producers. Thirty-four new facilities and expansions of some existing plants will soon add 2.2 billion gallons of capacity toward the new Renewable Fuels Standard of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.