trouble with biofuel?

Brent Finnegan -- March 24th, 2008

Political leaders of the western world have pushed for biofuel initiatives, but now corn prices are soaring. In today’s Roanoke Times, Dennis Avery, a Shenandoah Valley farmer and director of the Center for Global Food Issues, rails against biofuels.

World corn prices are above $5 a bushel, up from $1.86 three years ago. Prices for wheat, soybeans, rice and even cotton are rising as they’re crowded out of field space by biofuel crops. Pakistan says it will reimpose food rationing for the first time since the 1980s. China’s food inflation rate is 18.2 percent, and the Chinese have blocked further expansion of their fledgling biofuel program.

Oxfam points out that the poor in the Third World must often spend 60 to 80 percent of their incomes for food, so the price increases are a drastic threat to their well-being […]

Meanwhile, while U.S. and European officials stubbornly insist that burning millions of tons of corn, sugar and palm oil in our gas tanks has nothing to do with the soaring prices of farm commodities […]

U.S. corn farmers raised a record amount of grain last summer — but one-third of it is going into ethanol plants to “cure our addiction to foreign oil.” That corn will produce perhaps 10 billion gallons of ethanol — but nets out to just 50 gallons worth of gasoline per acre. That’s after subtracting the nitrogen fertilizer, the diesel fuel, the process heat for the ethanol plants — and ethanol’s 35 fewer BTU’s of energy per gallon.

21 Responses to “trouble with biofuel?”

  1. Once, I am sad to say, I told you so. These are horrible consequences of a government mandate without the proper knowledge of the ramifications.


  2. Marcus says:

    It is the same issue with nuclear power, electric cars, wind mills, etc. We want to try new things which is great, but seemingly predicable issues arise when we try them or unknown impact factors cause them not to happen.

    I am confident some research is done, but how are these scenarios not predictable from an economic standpoint? The effort is great, but it only continues to add pessimism to the idea that we can come up with quality environmental friendly long term solutions.

    Are there research firms that do in-depth studies of the short and long term potential consequences to the economy, environment and social impact of various intended eco-friendly solutions before trying them? Are they unsuccessful or under funded?

    Until then reduced use continues to be the best solution…

  3. JW says:

    CGFI is a bunch of crackpots.

    These are the same folks who go around saying:
    “Organic Farming Conversion Increases Pesticide Use”


    ” New Beef Eco-Report: Pound-for-Pound, Beef Produced with Grains and Growth Hormones Produces 40% Less Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Saves Two-Thirds More Land for Nature Compared to Organic Grass-Fed Beef”

    These guys are widely disdained within the scientific community.

  4. Gxeremio says:

    On a global level, we need to encourage countries to become as food-independent as possible and to increase access to health care and family planning. We currently have a system where government subsidies and trade policies make it unprofitable for farmers in poor countries to grow and sell crops which must compete with cheaper American exports. Now when prices go up, we have a food shortage on our hands in the World Food Programme. And the population of developing countries continues to rise at a fast pace, not only because of poor family planning, but also because many families in developing countries cannot expect their children to survive to adulthood because of lack of health care, so they have as many kids as possible as a form of insurance against child mortality! So many interconnected problems.

    The good news is that just as a negative trend can cause a ripple effect, so can a positive trend. Let’s work to help start and sustain positive trends.

  5. JW says:

    oh.. and his 50 gallons per acre number? Decidely wrong.
    It depends on your crop yield, but lets look at an average yield of 150 bushels per acre (which was a very low end yield last year).

    Most grain ethanol producers can easily get 2.5 gallons of ethanol from one bushel of corn.
    2.5 x 150 bushels per acre = 375 gallons of EtOH per are (on the low end)

    EtOH is about 15% less energy per gallon to gasoline, so 0.85 * 375 gallons = 318.75 gallons of gasoline equivalent per acre, that’s several orders of magnitude different from the 50 gallons per acre according to Mr. Avery.

  6. finnegan says:

    Here’s a transcript of a debate on WSVA in 1999, between Dennis Avery and Joel Salatin over “modern agricultural practices and policies.”

  7. JW says:

    Thanks for posting the transcript, very entertaining to look at from nearly 10 years after the interview.

    First.. using corn for ethanol, isn’t the best way to make a transportation fuel. There are MUCH better crops that can be grown on a fraction of the inputs on marginal lands for turning into energy or ethanol.

    Secondly, a lot of the food shortages in the world are due to more than just the price of food. It has a lot to do with the inefficiencies of transporting food from one place to another. The US produces way more grains that it consumes, and till recently this kept the global price of grain artificially low. The US gave away more grain thru USAID and other programs than moat of the remainder of the world grew. Very hard for a farmer in a 3rd world country to compete with free grain, therefore a lot of them quit farming.

    The inefficiencies of transportation aren’t a new problem. During the great depression huge amounts of wheat rotted beside the rail depots in the midwest while Americans starved in the cities. There simply wasn’t a way to move the grain, combined with the market bottoming out due to an over abundance of grain.

  8. Draegn88 says:

    Gxer, the solution to the problem you describe is to stop all foreign aid period. Let developing nations learn to support themselves or fail.

    Look at what Zimbabwe has become. If we try to support the world, we’ll end up the same way.

  9. Lowell Fulk says:

    JW, please send me an email?
    I’d like to ask you a question if I may.

  10. Bubby says:

    JW: Energy yield factors in the energy needed to plant the crop, fertilize the crop, harvest the crop, and process the crop to ethanol – ending up with MAYBE 50 gals of NET fuel. And none of this factors the cost of lost soil, herbicide run-off, air emissions, or stream sedimentation.

    We aren’t going to solve this problem from the supply side. We will need to address demand, and our “need” to drive gas guzzlers, ship our food 2500 miles, or preserve our “right” to cheap energy.

  11. JW says:

    “JW: Energy yield factors in the energy needed to plant the crop, fertilize the crop, harvest the crop, and process the crop to ethanol – ending up with MAYBE 50 gals of NET fuel. And none of this factors the cost of lost soil, herbicide run-off, air emissions, or stream sedimentation.”

    I’m well aware of the diesel and fertilizer involved to plant, harvest, and transport the grain. I even have calculated hours and fuel costs per acre for different in-field operations. The net is well above, orders of magnitude above, 50 gallons net positive for gasoline. It’s net positive for an low average yield of 150 bushels per acre. It’s well above average for the average corn yeild last fall, which was above 200 bushels per acre and as high as 220 bushels per acre for several midwestern states.

    That said, corn is not the right crop for ethanol. For 1/8th the water and fertilizer inputs you can grow a forage sorghum that would yield 10 (non-irrigated) to 20+ tons (irrigated) of material per acre. Corn yields about 5 tons per acre counting the grain and the stalk. Not counting the higher sugar precursors in the sorghum, on tonnage alone you can get 2-4 times more ethanol off the same acreage, and with less inputs.

    It all depends on where you are, what kind of soil you have and how you grow it. And your right, the run-off problems and stream sedimentation issues are pretty bad with conventional crops. Ideally you’d move toward a high yeilding perinnial like a miscanthus, or switchgrass crop. Minimal inputs, after establishement the only infield operations are harvesting, etc.

    Here is a picture of a switchgrass and miscanthus testplot, miscanthus is on the right and switch is on the left.

    To give you a better understanding, here it is with some perspective. Miscanthus behind a suburban.

    These were 3 year old test plots in Illinois, and the switchgrass was yielding 6-8 tons per acre, and the miscanthus was 15-23 tons per acre when we harvested them this past December.

  12. Bubby says:

    In my house it’s called Hokie Grass or Salvation of the Nation.

  13. JW says:

    I think they’d take offense to that in Iowa.


    We’re working on establishing 1500 acres of it in Oklahoma/Kansas for feedstocks right now. That in addition to side by side trials/comparative pivots with corn for our projects.

    It’s kinda what I do for a living, at least in a round about way.
    Had some interesting meetings with these folks last month:

  14. Phil C. says:

    I’ve been saying for a long time that, until biofuels and alternative energy sources can be produced in a cost-effective manner that beats our current source of fuel (oil), we can’t (economically speaking) simply jump over to a new fuel source.

    Now, once these fuels can become plentiful in supply, cheap to manufacture, and the engines that use the fuel aren’t significantly higher in price…then I say “go for it”.

    Until then, we’re experimenting with alternatives. However, if JW is right about using switchgrass to create ethanol for 1/8th the price, and switchgrass can be grown in abundant amounts, then that’s a viable alternative.

    I still say we should look at some of our neighbors in the First World and take another look at nuclear energy as a source of energy for electricity, as well. France (long-time friends of the American left, who are always pushing to break from oil/coal/etc…) is about 80% nuclear-powered. I believe America currently isn’t even at 20%. This would definitely create less of a need to use oil, as that would be reduced to mostly automotive use…thereby cheapening the price of oil (demand goes down, supply goes up, prices drop).

    I know that the idea of nuclear power scares many people…but Three Mile Island was 30 years ago, we did not have a problem before, and we haven’t had a problem since. I think that going nuclear is something our nation must look at as a viable option.

  15. Bubby says:

    JW: Impressive yields. I’d like to know more about what tillage, nutrient, and and chemical requirements are necessary to maintain production.

    Phil: What oil-equivalent price are you referring to? $20/bbl, $105/bbl. the Iraq war hidden cost price, or the Iran-war embargo price? Stable energy costs can be built in to the economy. The volatility, not so much.

    And nuclear? In a world where we worry about pocket knives on airplanes I’m not in any hurry to have more piles of plutonium lying around over at Lake Anna.

  16. JW says:

    “JW: Impressive yields. I’d like to know more about what tillage, nutrient, and and chemical requirements are necessary to maintain production.”

    For Miscanthus and Switch? It’s a one time deal for tilling. You prep the ground and plant the rhizome or seed and fertilize it for that year. I think it was around 20 lbs of N and acre for the test plots. The test plots have not been fertilized since. It’s a perennial crop, so other than a late fall or early spring harvest, no in-field operations are required. The later the harvest the less fertilizer needed, the minerals translocate back to the roots after senescence.

    The Miscanthus is a lot of hard work to get the rhizomes split and re-planted, but much higher yields long term. With current methods your between $1500 and $2000 per acre for establishment costs due to the labor intensive nature of the plant.

    If your interested I’ve got a guy coming thru the valley in a few months who specializes in switchgrass establishment. $225 an acre and he guarantees a stand, or he’ll reseed it for free. He’s doing a couple of fields in Bath and Augusta County.

    If you want, drop me an email at tsali_rider @ hotmail dot com and I’ll send you some papers I have on the miscanthus establishment and harvest protocols.

  17. Lowell Fulk says:


    Is switchgrass related to Johnson grass?

  18. JW says:

    Johnsongrass and Switchgrass are both warm season grasses, similar but different varieties.

    Johnsongrass will typically yield more tonnage per acre than Switchgrass in Virginia due to the climate.

  19. JW says:

    Johnsongrass and Switchgrass are both warm season grasses, just different varieties.

    Johnsongrass will typically yield a bit better than switchgrass most places in the valley.

  20. Frank J Witt says:

    Not to re-stir a discussion but while I was awake early this morning I watched a program about Poly Lactic Acid and its use as a plastic substitute in food service containers. Once again though it is made using corn…however it is different as this acid can be composed and returned to the earth.

    Cool stuff.

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