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Ethanol is regarded as an attractive alternative to gasoline and other fossil fuel-based automotive energy sources because they can assist in ending dependence on foreign-based oil imports, a dependence which reaches 140 billion gallons a year in the United States alone.Gal Luft, a director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, asserts that oil dependence is problematic not just for economic reasons, but for political ones as well, maintaining that the relationship between the United States and the oil-producing Muslim nation states is strained at best (as well as noting that this political tension is probably of greater concern than any purported political instability are said to plague these oil-producing nations.)
As such, oil dependency constitutes a political liability. Furthermore, geologists have argued that oil prices are not going to get any better, what with the increasing costs of drilling current oil reserves, and ethanol is therefore an economically sound alternative.
However, ethanol is not without its critics. Critics charge that the ethanol boom in the United States, which relies primarily on corn for feedstock has resulted in dramatic increases in food prices (and it is worth noting that many non-corn based food commodities utilize corn syrup). Farmers have begun to see the ethanol boom as lucrative incentive for corn production, which in its most positive sense has raised their incomes and “given new hope to flagging rural economies.”
This translates to a diversion of grain-based agriculture towards fuel production, imposing dramatic impacts upon the costs of maintaining food supply for both the world’s hungry and the world’s well fed. Grunwald maintains that “the grain it takes to fill an SUV tank could feed a person for a year.”
Furthermore, research presents that the rapid expansion of corn agriculture to feed the ethanol boom holds environmental consequences. Environmental journalist Richard Manning charges that industrialized agriculture is detrimental to soil fertility.Mindy Lubber concurs, maintaining that massive land conversion of lands towards the production of corn could recreate the conditions of The Great Dust Bowl, a period in the American heartland which saw hundreds of thousands of would-be wheat farmers plow the soil to death to profit from golden grain.
However, ethanol proponents are careful to remind us that it is also a renewable fuel source. Because it is derived from grain and other starch crops, and may also be obtained from cellulosic biomass such as crop residue, sugar cane bagasse and old newspapers, it is essentially a sustainable resource insofar production is concerned. Additionally, its energy potential, while being significantly less than that of gasoline, is endowed with a high octane level that gives it the power that is crucial to the operation of high compression engines such as those found in high performance automobiles.
Furthermore, Khosla argues that the trajectory of ethanol development will result in continuously increasing potential for energy density and engine efficiency that would rival that of gasoline. While opponents of corn-based ethanol have charged that the energy yield barely exceeds the amount of energy used in its production, developments in cellulose-based ethanol have been promising, which may lead to a future in which the biomass and waste of any municipality could be used for ethanol production.
Beyond the direct effects on corn prices, the corn-based ethanol boom also affects the price of various food commodities. Grunwald notes that the soybean market is affect to such an extent as to jack up the price of soybeans.
Also, increased production of sugarcane-based ethanol, combined with sugar quotas in the U.S. ensure that domestic prices of sugar continue to inflate. As such, producers of high fructose corn syrup such as the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland benefits in a situation where the price demand for high fructose corn syrup remains inelastic, simply because they are able to charge more for without fearing that sweetener-dependent companies will retaliate by switching to sugar.Even the price of a Starbucks latte is not immune to the effects of the corn-based ethanol boom, as diversion of crop grown to fuel production takes it away from the mouths of dairy cattle.
Furthermore, the demand for ethanol has effects that reach as far as the Amazon rainforest, where the resulting expansion is leading to its deforestation. This is an overwhelmingly negative development as the rainforest is a highly biodiverse region. Grunwald reports that scientists believe that this could essentially reduce the Amazon to a savanna, or worse, a desert.
Ethanol is not just an alternative fuel, but a complex distillation of political, economic and environmental issues. As such, it is difficult to reduce it to a simple either/or issue, let alone endorse it wholeheartedly as the silver bullet that will solve problems of climate change and fossil fuel dependency.