Revolution or just a pop solution?
Thursday, July 5, 2007 | 2:05 p.m. CDT; updated 3:29 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The story of ethanol starts in the soil.

A few miles outside Malta Bend, Harold Thompson farms the land he has been on for more than 40 years. Some years he plants more soybeans than corn on his 2,000 acres, sometimes not, but he always tries to rotate his crops for the sake of the soil.

The numbers behind ethanol

90 million acres of corn planted nationally this year 55 thousand average bushels of corn ground daily at Mid-Missouri Energy 9:10the ratio of ethanol to get the same output as gasoline 30 percent the reduced amount of carbon monoxide emissions with ethanol 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol U.S. refineries produced in 2005 69 approximate number of ethanol fuel stations in Missouri 4 dollars per bushel of corn
Food for thought
It’s the age-old problem of supply and demand. With the cost of corn rising, ethanol appears to have a chain reaction on the food market. Tortillas: In a competitive market, prices for corn tortillas, a staple of the Mexican diet, have risen as much as 60 percent. Making them na-cho best food option. Milk: Get ready to pay $4.50 a gallon — for milk. Dairy cattle’s primary food source is corn. The climbing feed prices are driving up the cost of moo juice. Tequila: Time to say adios to Jose? Mexican farmers are setting fire to fields of blue agave, the cactus plant used to make tequila, in order to plant corn and cash in on soaring U.S. ethanol prices. Chicken: The nation’s corn supply is not being fed to the birds. Ethanol demand has already increased the price of chicken by 6 cents per pound. Pizza: Mama Mia! Cows eat corn, cows produce milk, and milk makes cheese. Major pizza chains such as Pizza Hut and Papa John’s have raised prices for pies.

For the past few years, though, the percentage of corn Thompson grows has increased along with its price. “We’re getting real good rates now,” he says.

Good rates, indeed. For years the price of corn hovered around $2 a bushel, a price that Thompson says made it hard to break even. Recent demand from ethanol has forced corn prices up to around $4 a bushel.

Ethanol is one alternative to fossil fuels in America’s current push for renewable power. Supporters of ethanol say it is revitalizing communities in the heartland in addition to providing a renewable energy source. Opponents view ethanol as a stopgap measure to dependence on foreign oil at best, a huge contributor to pollution at worst.

To be sure, ethanol is not the only alternative energy source being pursued in the United States. Wind and solar power, hydrogen fuel cells and even the long-promised electric car are also all being explored. But ethanol is rapidly gaining the most attention.

Politicians from the White House on down provide incentives for the production of ethanol, and car manufacturers continue to send more flex-fuel vehicles onto America’s highways and rural roads.

Closer to home, Gov. Matt Blunt supported a mandate in 2006 that requires ethanol to be blended into gasoline whenever it is cheaper than regular gas.

With uncertainty a constant in the Middle East, ethanol looks to be a boon to the state. The Department of Economic Development released a report in February that stated Missouri could reap an additional $542 million per year through 2013 from ethanol and other biofuels.

That financial gift comes from Missouri’s corn, the only economically practical way to make ethanol right now. But does the benefit to Missouri’s farmers come at the expense of others? Following ethanol from plant to crop helps explain the economic, social and political cost of a gallon of ethanol.


A mile past the only stop sign in Malta Bend, population 249, lies the Mid-Missouri Energy Company. The metal and concrete industrial facility, planted in the middle of rural farmland that radiates out for miles, looks out of place. But the plant and the surrounding soil are closely tied.

Ethan Taylor, of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, stresses the impact ethanol production has had on rural communities in the Midwest.

“These plants generate a lot of tax revenue,” he says. Go through these towns, and you’ll see the economic and social growth.”

Signs of that growth can be seen in Malta Bend. At the corner with the stop sign sits the Wagon Wheel, a greasy spoon and convenience store. A few years ago the owners were looking for a buyer, but business has been booming since ground was broken for the mid-Missouri plant. At 11 a.m. on a weekday, pickup trucks line the curb, and there are no open tables.

Not everyone in Middle America is pleased with higher corn prices, though.

The increase translates to higher prices for feed, according to Don Nikidom, executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association. “Feed cost can be 80 percent of our prices,” he says. “It can cut into our profits dramatically.” Furthermore, the increased acres of farmland now dedicated to corn come at the expense of crops such as soybeans, another source of livestock feed.

For producers to get a fair price, consumers might pay more at the market. The U.S. Agriculture Department predicts that strong demand for corn from ethanol plants will raise the price of beef, poultry and pork. In Mexico, the same demand has dramatically increased the price of tortillas, a staple there.

The food versus fuel debate might be overblown. After the corn’s energy is taken out during ethanol production, the “food” is still left in the form of dried distillers grains.

Perhaps with ethanol you can have your corn and eat it, too.

But the process is a big environmental problem, says Ken Midkiff, conservation chair of the Osage Sierra Club. “Ethanol production and use arguably emits more carbon dioxide than oil and gas production,” he says.

The energy inputs that go into ethanol — fuel and fertilizer to grow the corn and more fuel to ship it — prevent ethanol, as it is currently produced, from benefiting the environment.

Midkiff says ethanol should be seen as a stopgap measure until dependence on oil is reduced. The only upside to ethanol, he says, is higher corn prices.

Russ Kremer of the Missouri Farm Union worries whether profits will stay with the small farmer. “When there’s money to be made, Wall Street investors come like flies to honey,” he says.

For now, though, farmers feel the benefits. They’d be happy to keep trucking their corn to ethanol production plants at historically high prices.


Patty Kinder says that after a rain, the air around Malta Bend smells like bread.

Kinder is the assistant to the general manager at Mid-Missouri Energy, the third ethanol production plant to open in the state, and was instrumental in bringing the $60 million facility to Malta Bend. Kinder grew up on a farm, and she’s enthusiastic about the advantage ethanol gives farmers.

“When corn prices are low, farmers make money selling ethanol and vice versa,” she says. “They have protection they’ve never had before.”

Producing ethanol requires a large amount of natural gas and other forms of energy. As Midkiff noted, trucks and trains require diesel fuel to ship ethanol. Unlike oil, which can travel through pipelines, ethanol must go out on the road. Pipelines contain water, which binds with ethanol and ruins its value.

Factor in the fuel required to harvest corn, and concerns are raised about the net energy balance of ethanol. According to Midkiff, some studies have shown that producing ethanol requires twice the amount of energy it releases, while others show a positive net balance.

Kinder says that many of the reports that show a negative energy balance are based on older studies. Recent advances in technology have made ethanol production much more efficient. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is on Kinder’s side: A 2004 study showed that ethanol might net 67 percent more energy than it takes to produce.

Scientists might not have decided if ethanol is energy efficient, but it doesn’t appear the debate has slowed production. According to the National Corn Growers Association, 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol were produced in 2005, an increase of more than 139 percent since 2000.


On a warm afternoon in March, the Break Time gas station on Forum Road bustles. In a 40-minute span, 26 cars pull in to fill up.

The owner of that 26th car is something of a novelty. While everyone else pays $2.49 for a gallon of gas, David French is only paying $2.04. That’s because he’s filling up his 2004 Ford Explorer with E-85.

At the gasoline pump, ethanol is available in two forms: E-10, which contains 10 percent ethanol, and E-85, which contains 85 percent. Any car can run on gasoline blended with a small amount of ethanol, and many do. About 30 percent of the nation’s gas contains ethanol, most of which is E-10, according to the National Corn Growers Association.

By Jan. 1, 2008, all gasoline sold in Missouri will contain 10 percent ethanol by state mandate. Taylor says that at this point the market for E-10 will be “saturated,” meaning supply will exceed demand. The market will then turn to higher concentrations such as E-85.

A special flex-fuel vehicle, similar to French’s Ford Explorer, is required to run on E-85. According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, more than 5 million flex-fuel vehicles are on the road today. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have pledged that half of the cars they produce by 2012 will be capable of running E-85.

Owners of a flex-fuel vehicle must find a gas station such as the Break Time on Forum, one of 69 gas stations in Missouri listed on the NEVC Web site that sell E-85. “Given the choice, I’d go out of my way to find a station [with E-85],” French says.

Driving around for a station, though, might wipe out any savings he sees at the pump. Ethanol is slightly less efficient than oil. It contains about 10 percent less BTUs of energy than standard gasoline, according to Taylor.

French claims he doesn’t notice a difference when he drives, but that 10 percent works out to a loss of roughly two to three miles per gallon.

The environmental benefits of ethanol, supporters say, come in the form of lower emissions. When ethanol is blended with gasoline, it adds oxygen, and the resulting fuel burns cleaner. According to the National Corn Growers Association, ethanol reduces tailpipe carbon monoxide emissions by as much as 30 percent.

One person who won’t be purchasing a flex-fuel vehicle on account of these benefits is Claire Garden, who makes an effort to live in an environmentally conscious way. Garden’s grandparents were farmers, and although she is supportive of the small-farming community, she doesn’t think ethanol is the answer to renewable power.

“Corn is not a good crop for the planet,” she says. “What we really need is to drive less, not use bigger vehicles than we need.”

Instead of a flex-fuel vehicle, Garden purchased a Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid car. Other energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydrogen, are truly sustainable and more worthy of investment, she says.

It appears, however, that more flex-fuel vehicles will be rolling off production lines in the U.S. and will be heading to the increasing number of gas stations that offer ethanol.


Tracing ethanol on its journey from crop to pump creates a complex picture that might raise more questions than answers.

Perhaps the future of ethanol lies not in the corn itself but in the cornstalk. Although the technology is a few years away, ethanol produced from the cellulose of switch grass, wood residue and cornstalks could provide a more environmentally attractive biofuel. Taylor says it will be years before making ethanol from cellulose becomes economically feasible, though.

The goal, of course, is to reduce dependence on foreign oil and begin the long fight against global warming. But even if the U.S. poured all its resources into producing ethanol, the result wouldn’t even come close to quenching the country’s thirst for energy. Midkiff says that if every kernel of corn currently produced was used to make ethanol, only three percent of energy needs would be met.

It is important to remember, then, that ethanol is only a small step to the solution of America’s quest for energy independence; it is not the answer to the problem. Other technologies such as solar and wind power will play a part, along with efforts to increase the fuel economy of our automobiles and to promote the widespread use of public transit.

Anything less would be as helpful as a stalk of corn blowing in the wind.

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Tyler Rasmus July 5, 2007 | 2:52 p.m.

Where are all the pictures?

(Report Comment)
Jack Smith July 5, 2007 | 3:35 p.m.

Your article presents many false notions, which are obviously meant to deter ethanol buyers:

#1) Flex fuel vehicles are not "required" to run on E-85. They are actually compatible with any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, up to 85% ethanol. When you say they "Must find" an E-85 station, that is making your reader assume that flex-fuel cars can only use E-85. This myth is one of the reasons America has been so slow to adapt to this new technology and fuel.
#2)Scientists HAVE basically decided ethanol is energy efficient. In relation to how much energy gasoline or diesel takes to get from mining to refining, ethanol is an energy miracle. 7 out of the 8 major studies of ethanol efficiency have shown ethanol to have anywhere from 20 to 70% more BTU's than it takes to produce ethanol. Pimentel's study is one of the few that says corn ethanol has a negative energy balance. Check his background and funding. He's the Cornell University Oil Consortium president, and they receive funding from Chevron and Philips Petroleum. His partner, Tad Patzek, did research and was on Shell Oil Company's payroll for nearly ten years. And he forgets, in his study, to show the energy balance of gasoline and diesel. People forget that they too need to be transported, refined, and produced.

Please research your article more next time, and keep politics out of things.

(Report Comment)
Grace West July 5, 2007 | 7:56 p.m.

Mr. Smith, thank you for correcting the misinformation about ethanol's energy efficiency, though I doubt you will ever convince the Sierra Club. What I'd like to know is whether anyone has done a study on how much of the price increase in food and feed products is REALLY due to the increase in corn prices. It seems to me that when the price paid to farmers is such a small percentage of the cost of the finished product, there should only be that percentage of increase in the finished product. Could it be that the middlemen are using this as an excuse to raise their prices significantly more than it's actually costing them?

(Report Comment)
Andrew Denney July 5, 2007 | 9:57 p.m.

Great article. Verb usage--impeccable. However, I wanted to know more about the Garden quote about how corn is bad for the Earth. How so?

(Report Comment)
Editor Food and Fuel America July 6, 2007 | 5:13 a.m.

"The food versus fuel debate might be overblown."

Well, yes. It suits the oil companies just fine to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt into consumers mind about the many benefits of ethanol, a clean-burning, renewable fuel grown here in America.

Grace--> here are some quick answers on the food costs. Yes, it's pennies per pound:

* There are 56 pounds of corn in a bushel. When corn is $3.50 per bushel, a pound of corn is worth 6.3 cents. At $4.00 per bushel, a pound of corn is worth 7.1 cents.

* According to the Beef Checkoff, it takes 2.6 pounds of corn to produce one pound of beef, live weight (includes bone, fat, etc.). This equates to 18.6 cents worth of corn when corn is $4.00 per bushel.

* The National Pork Board says it takes 3.6 pounds of corn to produce one pound of pork, live weight. This equates to 25.7 cents worth of corn when corn is $4.00 per bushel.

* It takes 2.0 pounds of corn to produce one pound of chicken, live weight, according to the National Chicken Council. This equates to 14.3 cents worth of corn when corn is $4.00 per bushel."

More info like this on food and fuel can be found at

Food and Fuel America .com

(Report Comment)
Grace West July 6, 2007 | 6:06 a.m.

I checked out the Food and Fuel America website. There is a lot of good information there, including the fact that farmers don't set the prices for the products they sell.

(Report Comment)
Barry Morgan July 6, 2007 | 9:34 a.m.

"In Mexico, the same demand has dramatically increased the price of tortillas, a staple there."

Tortillas are made from white corn, not #2 yellow dent corn that goes into ethanol. While I agree that white corn may have lost some acerage, I would disagree that any price increase more than a penny or two could be contributed to ethanol. Most likely it is from profit takers acting on the market volatility and the price of transportation affecting the cost. Mostly I beleive that it is companies taking advantage of the situation.

(Report Comment)
Jack Smith July 6, 2007 | 11:51 a.m.

Yet another myth, the corn tortilla prices. Energy prices are much more closely correlated with the cost of food than #2 yellow corn. Look at how high gas prices and diesel prices are now, compared to two years ago and beyond. Of course food prices will go up. Transportation and the cost of living went way up with gasoline, and oil companies' profits.

(Report Comment)
dwayne Miller July 8, 2007 | 4:51 p.m.

If you want the truth about ethanol go to a Car and Driver report done on ethanol about 6-8 months ago. They did a side by side test of a Chevy SUV and found a 25% decrease in fuel mileage. Last Friday a letter to the editor of the Joplin Globe reported that his flexfuel vehicle got 16-18 on unleaded fuel and when he switched to E-85 it dropped to 9 miles per gallon. Those are real tests and it points to a bad bill of goods the American people have been sold. Never will go to it. We need real fuel efficiency for our vehicles and new innovative technology.

(Report Comment)
Gary Dikkers July 8, 2007 | 7:31 p.m.

"Patty Kinder says that many of the reports that show a negative energy balance are based on older studies. Recent advances in technology have made ethanol production much more efficient."


It doesn't even take a scientific study to know that corn ethanol has a negative energy balance and that it is not actually a renewable fuel.

If corn ethanol were truly renewable and its production produced more energy than it consumed, then we would see corn farmers and ethanol plants using ethanol as their fuel with which to make more ethanol.

We don't see that, and the reason is that making corn ethanol consumes more energy than its production returns.

Why would corn farmers and ethanol plants remain dependent on expensive and unrenewable fossil fuels if ethanol actually returned more energy than it consumed?

The one truth our media and Corn Belt politicians need to understand is that corn ethanol is NOT a renewable fuel -- at least not until the corn ethanol industry demonstrates they can grow corn and make it into ethanol without consuming valuable, unrenewable fossil fuels.

(Report Comment)

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