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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Beer good, corn subsidies bad”

    Matt Stonecolumnist
    Matt Stone
    columnist

    Look, corn-based ethanol just doesn’t work. Most college students wouldn’t care, but with all the money the U.S. government is funneling into corn-based ethanol, the price of your beer – yes, that hoppy (yet so tasty) Fat Bastard you savor at Frog & Firkin – is on the rise.

    It matters on other levels as well – from geopolitics to environmental effects. Indeed, corn-based ethanol is not the energy-producing, world-saving, geostrategic silver bullet corn farmers want you to believe it is. And our beer, well, shoot, it costs more.

    If only the delusions matched the reality. Corn-based ethanol represents the worst of all possible worlds. Indeed, while hydrogen fuel cells have all but fallen off the radar, that corn stuff has continued to gain political momentum. The speed at which Americans move from one energy panacea to another is only matched by the hyperbole that surrounds every new spun-up, emptied-out shadow of a good idea.

    In January, corn-state senators Barack Obama, D-Ill., Tom Harkin, D-Ia. and Richard Lugar, R-Ind. introduced legislation that shovels more money at American corn growers. (As if they weren’t subsidized enough!) The idea behind the legislation is sound: to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. The science and economics, however, are all wrong.

    First, the science. There is more to the viability of an energy resource than its economics and its cost-to-benefit ratio. More important is the question of whether a particular energy resource requires more energy to create it than the product ultimately provides when burned. This ratio of energy-in versus energy-out is known as the energy return on investment, or EROI.

    The EROI of most types of petroleum – like oil – is very high, implying a significant net gain in producing the substance and burning it. Most scientists place the EROI of oil in the range of six to seven. However, when it comes to corn-based ethanol, the EROI is less than one. That implies a net loss in energy output.

    Interestingly, sugarcane-based ethanol – as opposed to the corn-based variety – actually achieves an EROI of eight. Considering domestic sugarcane production is limited at best, you won’t see too many senators shoveling money in that more sensible direction. Rather, we slap tariffs on the stuff imported from Brazil.

    Indeed, in a study published in 2005, Dr. Tad Patzek, a geoengineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, asserted that corn-based ethanol production consumes six units of energy to produce just one. With an EROI like that, ethanol production requires the United States to import more oil, not less.

    The economics are also less than heartening. Ethanol production has had deleterious world price effects that hurt everyone from Mexican tortilla consumers to college beer-drinkers.

    On Jan. 31, more than 75,000 Mexican laborers and trade unionists marched on Mexico City’s Zocalo plaza to protest the doubling of tortilla prices over the past year. Because demand for corn has increased smartly in response to subsidized ethanol production, the price for tortillas – the staple of the Mexican diet – has likewise risen. Hurt by this are the poor who rely on tortillas as the main component of every meal.

    A bit closer to home, beer prices are also climbing steadily, according to a report in The Financial Times. Due to strong demand for ethanol source crops like corn, rapeseed and soybeans, farmers are choosing to plant these crops instead of barley, the primary ingredient of beer. With less barley on world markets, its price has climbed. That price hike is passed on to the beer consumers of the world.

    This ethanol craze is nothing but a good bit of self-interested politicking and institutionalized ignorance. It benefits industrial corn farmers in the Midwest. It hurts consumers with higher prices on food and beer. It hurts believers in the nebulous concept of energy independence by requiring additional energy imports to sustain an energy-inefficient practice.

    With all the talk of achieving real energy security, one would think the best minds in America could do better than this.

    For our sake, senators, don’t price starving college students out of the market for beer with your little ethanol love-fest. We may just quit college and march on Washington, D.C.

    Matt Stone is a senior majoring in international studies and economics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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