From the December 2008 Idaho Observer:

Biofuels cause food shortages—but only if the govt is involved

Last year we reported that president Bush’s ethanol program was an environmental and food supply disaster in progress. We are about to find out since, suddenly,most gas sold at the pumps of this nation contains about "10 percent ethanol." But, as it turns out, the problem is not the ethanol. The problem is government subsidy, corporate greed and sinister intentions on a global scale. If we empowered ourselves to act locally and were taught to think intelligently, enough ethanol could be produced as part of a sensible chain of processes that would transform communities and end our dependence on imported oil and petroleum-based products.

By Anne Wilder Chamberlain

In the October, 2007 edition of The Idaho Observer, we reported that, "…with the current technology, it takes seven barrels of oil to produce eight barrels of ethanol from corn" and that "cars running on ethanol are 30 percent less efficient than those running on gasoline." We also said the cost of food will go up as supply and acreage is diverted to fuel production.

David Bloom, author of the book, Alcohol Can be a Gas, has a different point of view. He says this myth has been aggressively distributed by the American Petroleum Institute based on flawed studies by Cornell professor David Pimentel, and the reality is that Americans, by distilling their own ethanol, can create an ecologically sustainable economy with a huge opportunity for organic farmers to help our country become energy-independent.

The IO based its assessment last year on writings by folks like Michael Ruppert of Wilderness Publications, who stated in the video Escape from Suburbia, "Do the math. It takes more oil to produce ethanol than what you save." He then points out the dry, depleted soil condition of chemically treated, ethanol-producing corn crops.

A study by scientists Timothy Searchinger from Princeton University and Joseph Fargione of the Nature Conservancy, in the February 2008 edition of Science magazine, claims that when land is cleared, 93 times the "greenhouse gases" are released into the atmosphere as would be saved by the fuel made annually on the land. They point out that U.S. farmers who previously alternated corn with soy in their fields now grow only corn, so soy has to be grown somewhere else, like Brazil, on land that was previously Amazon Forest. Transporting and refining it causes a negative energy return on energy invested (EROEI), they say, with the only possible exception being Brazil’s sugar cane, which takes less energy to grow and refine.

The other point of view

Bloom says that prior to Prohibition, all cars were flex-fuel (ran on either gasoline or alcohol). Henry Ford wanted them that way because farmers distilled their own fuel on their back 40. Then John D. Rockefeller, owner of Standard Oil, who was dumping the toxic waste from his oil refineries (gasoline) into the rivers, funneled $4 million into the Women’s Temperance Society and together they forced Prohibition into law, and with it, gasoline-only fueled vehicles. The benefits of biofuels continue to come under attack while oil companies record their highest profits ever – again.

Bloom says a better study on ethanol’s EROEI by Isaias de Carvalho Macedo shows an alcohol energy return of more than eight to one, and accounts for everything right down to smelting the ore to make the steel for tractors.

The ecological nightmare is from industrial agriculture, he says. Ethanol is 98 percent pollution free and production of it takes CO2 from the air instead of putting it in. Switching to organic-style crop rotation cuts energy use by a third and the amount of CO2 removed from the air and then exuded into the soil by the plants is 13 times the amount emitted by processing the crops and burning the alcohol in cars.

Farmers can process the crops on their own farms, eliminating transportation and the byproducts are clean and can be used as fertilizer for next year’s crops, replacing high-estrogen petrochemical fertilizers while providing a natural herbicide.

According to the USDA, corn constitutes only 7.45 percent of crops grown in this country, 87 percent of which goes to animal feed. The byproducts left over from the alcohol manufacturing process, "distiller grains," contain mostly protein and fat. This is a higher quality livestock feed than just corn, producing 15 percent more meat because cattle don’t digest the starch. These byproducts can be first run through animals as feed, then be fed to the soil as fertilizer, says Bloom.

U.S. corn rarely feeds the world’s people anymore, as most countries no longer want it because it is genetically modified. It began to be used here for ethanol because of the surplus, even though it produces one of the lower ratios of alcohol per acre, under 400 gallons. Sugar beets produce 770 gallons per acre, and cattails grown in wastewater can produce up to 2500 gallons per acre. By producing ethanol from cattails, a small town could treat its sewage, run its cars and heat its homes, as alcohol can also be used in lieu of heating oil.

Brazil is a perfect example of what ethanol can do for a country’s economy, Bloom states. In the early 1980s Brazil’s economy was being destroyed by skyrocketing oil prices. Instead of borrowing money, the government mandated that its auto companies produce vehicles powered by alcohol fuel. Today, 85 percent of its automobiles run on alcohol; it is energy self-sufficient, expects to export over 3 billion gallons of the fuel by 2010 and claims not to have cut down any rainforests to do this. The average Brazilian alcohol plant uses about 23 percent of its self-produced electricity for its own operation and sells 77 percent back to the grid.

Where do food shortages come from?

In the 1940s and 1950s the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations funded agricultural research into Mexico, the basis for the so-called Green Revolution. Advocates said "miracle" seeds increased grain yields through the magic of genetic engineering and therefore were a key to ending world hunger. By the 1990s these "miracle" seeds, accompanied by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, had replaced the traditional farming practices of millions of farmers in Mexico, India and now Africa.

According to Verdana Shivo, India’s renowned agricultural protagonist, the ecological and social costs of the "Green Revolution" have been ignored. Because drought-resistant local crops have been replaced with water-guzzling crops, soils are deprived of vital organic material and droughts are recurrent. For the same amount of water, sorghum and millet provide four times more protein and minerals, she says. For Third World peasants, water scarcity means starvation and destitution.

According to, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank also pressed third world governments to switch from growing food. Traditional food crops like sorghum, cassava, yams and millet are not profitable as cash-crops for export to industrialized countries, so they were ignored by international agribusinesses in favor of coffee, sugar, cocoa beans, tea and cotton. The export earnings were used to purchase food, often cheap imports. Food self-sufficiency was viewed as obsolete, and local farmers were displaced.

The January 2008 Hightower Lowdown reports that since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, Mexico’s longstanding system of sustaining its population of self-sufficient farmers, industry workers, and tortilla manufacturers has been scuttled by "free trade" ideologues. U.S. agribusiness corporations have doubled their shipments of subsidized crops into Mexico, busting the price that indigenous farmers got for their production and displacing some 2 million peasant farmers from their land.

It gets worse

This fall the trouble on Wall Street caused the price of corn, soybeans and wheat to plummet by half. With the high cost of diesel and fertilizer this summer, farmers barely broke even. Yet retail food prices continue to rise, up almost 11 percent from last year.

Bloom said in a radio interview with Jeff Rense, Dec. 1, 2008, that American corn growers want to get away from growing corn because the big corporations are dropping corn prices in order to put them out of business so they can buy up the farmland. Then they can control not only the ethanol production in this country but also food production here and abroad.

He added "For Christmas, I want Freedom. The corporatacracy wants to buy our farms and sell the crops to the highest bidder. We have to get out from under them. We must stop giving them our cash."

A group of the ethanol producers have banded together to launch a new organization,, to set the record straight about ethanol production and food prices. The lies the Grocery Manufacturers Association has been spreading about biofuels have finally been exposed as a dishonest smear campaign, say members. Corn and commodity prices are lower now, so if biofuels were forcing food prices up, the lower price of corn should have brought food prices back down.

American ethanol is on the verge of innovative breakthroughs that will make it even cleaner, and according to the US Department of Energy, for every billion gallons of ethanol produced, ten to twenty thousand jobs are created.

If the government would just get out of the way, American farmers could create a high-tech, homegrown, economy-revitalizing product to sell to the neighborhood store. With the help of small businesses American ethanol can achieve U.S. energy independence.

What we can do:

It is definitely time to begin thinking locally. Plan to plant a vegetable garden next spring or participate in or initiate community gardens or farms and community supported agriculture (CSAs); seek out and support farmers markets

Be thoughtful about the energy you consume and learn about producing your own fuel at David Bloom’s website:

Bankrupt the corporatacracy: Buy locally wherever you can, resist buying silly items you don’t need and make a habit of recycling, reusing and "shopping" at garage sales and second-hand stores.

Think locally: Initiate localized economy in your county—create a transition culture. Go to