New Sherwood

Farming fuel products

Some Catholic bloggers are of the opinion that growing corn for ethanol is immoral. The idea seems to be that anything that can be grown for food must be grown for food – or not grown at all. I disagree with this in principle. Many products have multiple uses, only one of which is the “highest and best use” at the time. Despite the world food crisis this year, the fact remains that there are tremendous food surpluses in some regions, and severe shortages in other regions. Growing more corn for food in the United States is not necessarily going to help the poor in Haiti, who can’t afford to buy it in the first place. Furthermore there is so much wasted food in the United States that many farmers can’t even give away their product. Last year in Glenn County one could see many acres of rotting fruit on the ground beneath unharvested citrus trees. The cost of getting citrus to market was greater than the revenue it would bring. And we’re going to tell these farmers that they can’t pull out their orchards and grow corn for ethanol? That makes no sense whatsoever.

There is a new book on the market titled “Alcohol Can Be a Gas” by David Blume, and it’s getting lots of publicity. I haven’t read the book but the website looks very interesting. He says farmers can make a “middle class income” on small acreage by growing fuel conversion feedstocks. This fellow may be a huckster for all I know, but the idea intrigues me (for obvious reasons). If you have any thoughts about this, please leave a comment.

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August 22, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

11 Comments »

  1. I saw “Farmer Dave” give one of his presentations a few years back, in Illinois. He’s the real deal. That particular talk was about permaculture, rather than biofules, but he convinced me that he’s not a huckster. He knows his stuff, he’s been around the block, and he’s done his homework. That said, I’m not convinced that the typical automobile can be converted to run on homebrewed alcohol as easily as he says. But, like much of what he discusses, it’s a fascinating idea…and provides considerable fodder for additional thought.

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    Comment by Chris | August 22, 2008 | Reply

  2. Those who say growing fuel crops is immoral are obviously wrong. A better case could be made that the government subsidies in the West which promoted such growth were/are – if not immoral – extremely shortsighted and counterproductive.

    But then, that could be said of most government intervention in markets.

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    Comment by Francis | August 22, 2008 | Reply

  3. Jeff-I think some of the controversy on the morality of corn for fuel is not that it is intrinsically wrong, but that when corn prices are so high (due to ethanol) that people have a hard time affording feed for their animals (and in fact making many small raisers quit due to cost), then something is wrong. Of course, I think a small corn farmer should be able to make a decent living also. I am not taking sides-just trying to explain.

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    Comment by Jim Curley | August 22, 2008 | Reply

  4. I’m glad to hear you say this. I was unhappy, puzzled, and frustrated in a thread on W4 some time ago where it was implied that we are hurting the people in the third world by driving cars. The convoluted set of indirect causes assumed in that argument annoyed me. My impression was that they were saying that even by driving a gas-fueled car one was somehow driving up the cost of food for a person in the third world. Perhaps by increasing the culture of driving or something? Or by encouraging law-makers to press for the ethanol thing because they see how much people drive? I wasn’t even sure how that was supposed to work. But it reminded me just a bit of people who imply that we are responsible not to wash our cars because people in the third world don’t have fresh water! I mean, the water is purified here in my town and used here in my town. By not washing my car, I won’t help a single third-worlder to a clean-water drink. That’s an extreme case, and I know that we _do_ sell corn to the third-world, but there is somewhat of a similar flavor to the argument. That discussion about driving and food at W4 made me feel that sometimes the Crunchy goal (like, I’m sorry to say, the leftist’s goal) is just to accuse the guys with the cars of hurting the poor, however implausible an argument one has to make in order to make the accusation.

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    Comment by Lydia | August 22, 2008 | Reply

  5. Lydia: Interesting. If driving cars in the USA hurts people in other countries, the most significant connection I can come up with is that domestic fuel consumption drives up the price of fuel (or keeps it high) worldwide, which adversely affects the cost of food imports and farming inputs in other countries.

    That does make some sense … but the idea that Americans are going to collectively decide to drive less in order to help third-worlders, at the same time and in sufficient numbers, is pure fantasy, so I don’t think the conscience is justifiably burdened over this.

    I don’t know enough about the connection between global agriculture and the development of biofuels to have an opinion about whether corn-for-ethanol constitutes a reasonable biofuels policy. Watching Glenn Beck make a complete fool of himself is enough to keep me from pontificating on the subject. I will say, however, that the world only cultivates 1/3 to 1/2 of its usuable farmland, and this is in evidence everywhere. There’s a good, irrigable 20 acre parcel next door that has been sitting idle for years.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | August 23, 2008 | Reply

  6. It was supposed to be related _somehow_ to the ethanol industry. One idea was that now that our government is subsidizing ethanol production, it’s buying up our corn surpluses rather than selling them at some very low price abroad. Okay, that part I at least understand. But as far as driving, this would seem only to be related to people who drive ethanol-burning cars: “The government got third-worlders hooked on cheap corn, then it started subsidizing the buying of the extra corn instead as a fuel so that people like you can drive cars that burn it, and now the third-worlders can’t buy cheap corn from us anymore and have a food shortage.” It still seems to me in that case that the blame lies with the government, not with the person who drives the ethanol-burning vehicle. But I cannot for the life of me see how the ethanol boondoggle and the cost of food in the third world, put together, have _any_ connection to people who drive gas-burning cars.

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    Comment by Lydia | August 23, 2008 | Reply

  7. Something like 7% of our corn crop this year was scheduled for Ethanol production by the US gov’t. The congress gave huge tax breaks to certain corporations to build ethanol production plants, essentially paying for their construction. Combine that with poor crops in Europe and East Asia and you drive up the price. This was all part of a campaign to reduce global warming. BTW, has anyone else noticed that “global warming” has now become “climate change”? Likely that’s because the globe has stopped warming as of 7 or 8 years ago.

    It’s not unethical to make ethanol, but it may well be unethical to burn ethanol, since the corn required to brew up 20 gal would feed a child for several months, and there are millions of children around the world going hungry due to high grain prices.

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    Comment by Danby | August 23, 2008 | Reply

  8. Well, yes, I thought of that too. I mean, Crunchies (apologies to present company) are usually at least somewhat pro-environmentalist. What kills me is that when something like this is done in the name of “saving the planet” and then backfires (no pun intended) and ends up being bad for some people by the law of unintended consequences, instead of hearing a “mea culpa” from the environmentalists, we just hear more blame of people who drive cars. It’s always their fault, somehow. Like listening to an anti-semite talking about the Jewish conspiracy.

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    Comment by Lydia | August 23, 2008 | Reply

  9. “It’s not unethical to make ethanol, but it may well be unethical to burn ethanol, since the corn required to brew up 20 gal would feed a child for several months, and there are millions of children around the world going hungry due to high grain prices.”

    1. How do we know that grain prices would not have gone up anyway? The soaring cost of fuel in addition to, as you mention, poor crops around the world, must have contributed substantially to the increase in grain prices. No one knows to what degree corn-for-ethanol is responsible for high grain prices.

    2. I don’t see how any farmer is morally obliged to sell his product for a lower price because it would be used for food instead of fuel. The production and use of ethanol fuel should lower the demand for petroleum products, which should drive the price of oil down, which should reduce the price of grain and other farm products.

    3. As mentioned previously our farmland is vastly underused and under-utilized. IF there is a shortage of grain and a market for it, there is no reason why more grain could not be planted. Unfortunately in the U.S. the cost of inputs is so high that grain prices must increase in order to make grain farming profitable.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | August 24, 2008 | Reply

  10. Jeff, it sounds like you might be interested in growing corn for this. I would be wary: corn may very well be the next bubble. If you’re looking for a cash crop, you may want to consider cotton. Corn can be grown from Manitoba to Mexico, but cotton requires a warmer climate. And think about how many acres of former cotton fields have been ploughed over to build houses in Texas, Arizona, and the South. With many of those fields remaining being turned into corn, corn may be headed for a glut while cotton may be somewhat scarce. But, it’s just a hunch; I’m not someone who would know what he’s talking about.

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    Comment by australisvir | August 24, 2008 | Reply

  11. It is surely unethical to burn corn ethanol, as eveyrone knows that the reason God created corn ethanol was for people to age it in oak barrels and drink it!

    Likewise, blue agave farmers in Mexico are pulling up their source for good, drinkable ethanol in order to grow burnable ethanol. A shame that cries out to Heaven for Vengeance!

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    Comment by Erik Keilholtz | August 26, 2008 | Reply


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