In 1970, while heading President Richard Nixon’s National Security Council, Henry Kissinger said, “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control people.”
So what happens in an era when fuel is made from food instead of oil?
According to Jean Ziegler, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, you get a “crime against humanity.” In a report to the U.N. General Assembly in August 2007, Ziegler called for a five-year moratorium on the use of food crops for fuel, saying the practice would increase the cost of food, spur food shortages and lead to a “catastrophe” for the poor. He called for production of biofuel and biodiesel from agricultural waste rather than from food crops like wheat, corn and sugar cane.
The energy bill President Bush signed into law last month mandates a sevenfold increase in the use of biofuels by 2022. Such fuels are touted as a way to cure Americans of what the president has referred to as our country’s “addiction to fossil fuels.” These substitutes are currently manufactured from cellulosic biomass resources, including wood, waste and plants.
But expanding annual domestic production from the current 4.8 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons most likely will not be easy, cheap or clean.
It will, however, be controversial.
Researchers point out that the use of fossil fuels to grow and process corn into fuel not only results in a net energy loss but also creates pollutants that contribute to global warming.
According to a recent study commissioned by the Swiss government, researchers Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama found that biofuels made from U.S. corn may be worse overall than fossil fuels when all environmental costs of production are taken into account.
And U.S. corn is genetically modified -- even in Indiana. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that genetically engineered seeds account for 59 percent of all corn- and 94 percent of all soybean-planted acres in the Hoosier State.
Why worry about GMO corn if it’s used for biofuels instead of human or animal consumption? A study by IU environmental science professor Todd Royer and colleagues found GMO corn is potentially harmful to acquatic ecosystems. Pollen and other plant parts containing toxins from genetically engineered corn are washing into streams near cornfields, according to the study.
Meanwhile, increased demand for corn from both domestic and foreign markets has raised prices to record levels, which in turn has increased ethanol production costs, which in turn has led some investors to rethink their involvement in biofuel plants.
Citing the ethanol glut that depressed prices, VeraSun Energy Corp. recently suspended construction of a plant in Reynolds, Ind., also known as “Bio-Town USA.” The announcement took some luster off of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Hoosier Homegrown Energy plan to promote the production and use of corn-based ethanol.
No worries in Indiana
However, Gov. Daniels sees no biofuels backlash, just an era of unprecedented opportunity. According to his press secretary, Jane Jankowski, the state is well situated to supply the increasing global demand for food and energy.
“The long-term prospects for grain and ethanol production are quite favorable,” she wrote via e-mail. “But like all businesses, farmers and ethanol producers will need to manage very carefully during a transition from markets dominated by surpluses to markets dominated by full utilization of our productive capacity.”
She noted that VeraSun is expected to resume construction in Reynolds this spring and added that six additional plants are under construction and are expected to come on line this year -- including the world’s largest integrated soybean crushing/biodiesel production plant in Putnam County.
Biofuel backlash was also absent at a Jan. 4 “Renewable Energy Briefing” by Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who expressed vigorous support for biofuels as one of the strategies for creating what he termed “a more secure energy future.”
Lugar’s remarks to the Indiana Renewable Energy Forum were timely, as oil reached a record-high $100 per barrel Jan. 2. Lugar asserted that “energy is the most vital topic of the 2008 presidential election” and underlies almost every major foreign policy issue. “American national security will be at risk as long as we are heavily dependent on imported energy,” he said.
Without maligning the current occupant of the Oval Office, Lugar offered the audience an update to his 1988 book Letters to the Next President. He said energy policy will require “the application of dramatic, visionary and sustained presidential leadership.”
“Our energy dependence is perpetuated by a lack of national will and focus,” Lugar said. “Only the president has the visibility to elevate a cause to national status and only the president can leverage the buying power, regulatory authority and legislative leadership of an adminstration behind solving a problem that is highly conducive to politics, procrastination and partisanship.”
He called for the next president to “use every power to make competitively priced biofuels available to every motorist in America.” This would entail ensuring that new cars sold in the country are capable of running on flexible fuels (gas/ethanol mixtures as well as conventional gasoline) and expanding the availablity of E85 fuels to a quarter of the nation’s filling stations. E85 is an alcohol fuel mixture containing up to 85 percent denatured ethanol and gasoline.
Lugar’s focus was not limited to biofuels. He also lauded coal and nuclear power, gently chiding those he called “green idealists” who want to end the use of coal. “That’s not going to occur in the world in which we live,” he said.
As for nuclear power, Lugar said, “Continued progress on safety and waste issues is necessary, yet nuclear power offers an abundant alternative to carbon-intensive fuels.”
During the question-and-answer session following his prepared remarks, Lugar acknowledged the dilemma Indiana faces in promoting ethanol: there aren’t sufficent outlets. “We celebrated the 97th pump for E85 in all of Indiana yesterday,” he said.
In other words, getting the fuel is difficult. “The infrastucture problems are huge,” Lugar said, adding that it’s unclear how many flex-fuel vehicles are being used in the state. “The reason there’s some ambiguity is that maybe half of the people who have one, don’t know that they have one.” He said that auto manufacturers resisted mandates to build flex-fuel vehicles and haven’t promoted them.
Lugar also addressed concerns that corn-based biofuel uses more energy than it produces. ”That charge has been made, and clearly a lot of energy is used, but I think the research on ethanol improves the process so that probably the expenditure is declining.”
Turning the question around, he asked reporters, “What’s the alternative? Would you scrap the situation and begin importing more foreign oil? We’re trying to think what we have in the United States right now that we can use. We’ve got some corn.
“I would say this is the beginning. Almost everybody believes that energy efficiency will occur as more innovation happens with other fibers.”
Because Lugar called for rapid expansion of fuels made from biomass, he was asked about using industrial hemp.
“I think probably that has to be considered,” he said. “I’m not encouraging law breaking, but at the same time there are practical matters to consider. We’re trying to think how we can become at least slightly less dependent in a strategic sense. Hemp is an alternative and it has to be considered.”
Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, attended Lugar’s talk and agreed with the notion of using feedstocks other than corn.
“From an environmental standpoint, advanced biofuels are where we need to be to produce cleaner transportation fuels,” he said, adding that such cellulosic ethanol is manufactured from plant waste rather than food crops.
“Cellulosic ethanol has a very high net energy value, and if the feedstock is native grass like switchgrass, it’s a very low-input energy crop that has other environmental co-benefits, from improving soil quality and being less chemically intensive [pesticides and fertilizers] to providing wildlife habitat.”
Press secretary Jankowski observed that Purdue University is a leader in researching cellulosic production technologies and added that Gov. Daniels has long been a promoter of cellulosic.
“The governor recognized more than a year ago that the state needed to shift its ethanol focus and look to the next generation of biofuels production,” she said. In 2007, Daniels proposed and the state legislature approved a $20 million tax credit to promote cellulosic-based ethanol.
Asked whether establishing mandates for ethanol are in effect a subsidy for major corn producers, such as ADM and Cargill, Lugar replied, “In my remarks I said that to jumpstart biofuels usage, I advocate replacing the current static 51-cent subsidy for ethanol with a variable subsidy tied to the price of oil that includes a sunset provision.
“As you write these laws, you need to be moving foremost to how the subsidy is reduced and finally dispatched,” he said. “What we’ve always done in Farm Bills is to put in the subsidies and keep them forever.”
Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at
See a podcast of Sen. Lugar’s talk.