Investment in fuel ethanol distilleries has soared since the late-2005 oil price hikes, but data collection in this fast-changing sector has fallen behind. Because of inadequate data collection on the number of new plants under construction, the quantity of grain that will be needed for fuel ethanol distilleries has been vastly understated. Farmers, feeders, food processors, ethanol investors, and grain-importing countries are basing decisions on incomplete data.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that distilleries will require only 60 million tons of corn from the 2008 harvest. But here at the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), we estimate that distilleries will need 139 million tons—more than twice as much. If the EPI estimate is at all close to the mark, the emerging competition between cars and people for grain will likely drive world grain prices to levels never seen before. The key questions are: How high will grain prices rise? When will the crunch come? And what will be the worldwide effect of rising food prices?One reason for the low USDA projection is that it was released in February 2006, well before the effect of surging oil prices on investment in fuel ethanol distilleries was fully apparent. Beyond this, USDA relies heavily on the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), a trade group, for data on ethanol distilleries under construction, but the RFA data have lagged behind movement in the industry.
According to the EPI compilation, the 116 plants in production on December 31, 2006, were using 53 million tons of grain per year, while the 79 plants under construction—mostly larger facilities—will use 51 million tons of grain when they come online. Expansions of 11 existing plants will use another 8 million tons of grain (1 ton of corn = 39.4 bushels = 110 gallons of ethanol).
In addition, easily 200 ethanol plants were in the planning stage at the end of 2006. If these translate into construction starts between January 1 and June 30, 2007, at the same rate that plants did during the final six months of 2006, then an additional 3 billion gallons of capacity requiring 27 million more tons of grain will likely come online by September 1, 2008, the start of the 2008 harvest year. This raises the corn needed for distilleries to 139 million tons, half the 2008 harvest projected by USDA. This would yield nearly 15 billion gallons of ethanol, satisfying 6 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs. (And this estimate does not include any plants started after June 30, 2007, that would be finished in time to draw on the 2008 harvest.)
This unprecedented diversion of the world’s leading grain crop to the production of fuel will affect food prices everywhere. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of wheat and rice, both because of consumer substitution among grains and because the crops compete for land. Both corn and wheat futures were already trading at 10-year highs in late 2006.
With corn supplies tightening fast, rising prices will affect not only products made directly from corn, such as breakfast cereals, but also those produced using corn, including milk, eggs, cheese, butter, poultry, pork, beef, yogurt, and ice cream. The risk is that soaring food prices could generate a consumer backlash against the fuel ethanol industry.
Fuel ethanol proponents point out, and rightly so, that the use of corn to produce ethanol is not a total loss to the food economy because 30 percent of the corn is recovered in distillers dried grains that can be fed to beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and chickens, though only in limited amounts. They also argue that the U.S. distillery demand for corn can be met by expanding land in corn, mostly at the expense of soybeans, and by raising yields. While it is true that the corn crop can be expanded, there is no precedent for growth on the scale needed. And this soaring demand for corn comes when world grain production has fallen below consumption in six of the last seven years, dropping grain stocks to their lowest level in 34 years.
From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive demand for fuel is insatiable. The grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. Converting the entire U.S. grain harvest to ethanol would satisfy only 16 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs.
There are alternatives to creating a crop-based automotive fuel economy. The equivalent of the 2 percent of U.S. automotive fuel supplies now coming from ethanol could be achieved several times over, and at a fraction of the cost, by raising auto fuel efficiency standards by 20 percent.
If we shift to gas-electric hybrid plug-in cars over the next decade, we could be doing short-distance driving, such as the daily commute or grocery shopping, with electricity. If we then invested in thousands of wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the grid, U.S. cars could run primarily on wind energy—and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon. The stage is set for a crash program to help Detroit switch to gas-electric hybrid plug-in cars.
It is time for a moratorium on the licensing of new distilleries, a time-out, while we catch our breath and decide how much corn can be used for ethanol without dramatically raising food prices. The policy goal should be to use just enough fuel ethanol to support corn prices and farm incomes but not so much that it disrupts the world food economy. Meanwhile, a much greater effort is needed to produce ethanol from cellulosic sources such as switchgrass, a feedstock that is not used for food.
The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging food-fuel battle. As the leading grain producer, grain exporter, and ethanol producer, the United States is in the driver’s seat. We need to make sure that in trying to solve one problem—our dependence on imported oil—we do not create a far more serious one: chaos in the world food economy.