Farm fields landscape

Ethanol Power for the People

Talk of the Nation Science Friday
August 15, 2008

Ira Flatow, Host:

You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday, I'm Ira Flatow. [snip - CS]

For the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about ethanol as a fuel, and food prices rising, you know, with food and corn prices. Economists have been pointing out that you can't have your ethanol, and eat it too or so to speak. But my next guest disagrees. He says that if we really do the math, if we really understood how ethanol is made, we should have no trouble meeting demand for both fuel and food. They might just require us to make it differently and make it locally right there in your home town.

Joining me now is David Blume. He's the executive director of the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture. And author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas, published by the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture in Santa Cruz, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. David Blume: Well I'm glad to be here, Ira.

Flatow: Was I correct in saying that we really don't have to make a choice between food and fuel?

Blume, Byline: Well, I like how you put it. We can have our fuel and eat it, too. Yes, it's actually been quite well known for a long time that when you make alcohol, there's actually an increase in the food supply versus a decrease. If you look at the way the press has been running nowadays, the common byline is, 23 percent of the United States corn supply is being diverted to alcohol fuel production. Then, a follow-up with dire prognostications about how that would make the price of food go up and the shortage of food for other people.

Well, it's just not true. When you look at agriculture in the United States, basically, corn is hardly used as a human food at all. Maybe 1 percent of our corn supply ends up as corn flakes and corn chips. So, that's that the human use of food. And then, about 5 percent of our corn starch, not the whole corn, is used for high-fructose corn syrup.

Well, I would argue that that's not food but someone might disagree. Three percent of the starch goes for industrial uses, you know, things like gunpowder and starching shirts. So the rest of the corn is pretty much goes for animal feed. Well, with the exception of one percent for whiskey, which I might argue is food. So, we're really talking about animal food here. Now, it's very interesting when you look at the ecology of the cattle that we turn this corn into - you know, into food for. Cattle are natives of Southern Europe and Northern Africa, were forest dwellers, if you take a look at them, you can see they have big, wide feet and what they'd like to eat is brush.

So they're not actually evolved to eat grains. They're not grassland animals at all. They're browsers. So we try to feed corn to cattle. Every vegetarian will tell you the same thing. You have to get nine pounds of corn to make one pound of cow. Well, the nine pounds obviously goes somewhere, and it goes out the back door. Most of what goes out is starch, because cattle are not evolved to digest it. So we feed corn to cattle. We are really wasting most of the corn in order to get the protein and the fat to the cows to fatten them up.

When we make alcohol, we don't touch the protein or fat - we only take out the indigestible starch. So really, when we make alcohol, we're improving the quality of the animal feed. Cattle actually gain 17 percent more weight on the byproduct from alcohol fuel production than on the original corn it came from.

Flatow: So you're saying that we take out from the corn, we take animal feed out to feed the animals, and we take the cellulose out to make the alcohol?

Blume: Well, we take the starch out to make the alcohol.

Flatow: Starch out, I mean. Yeah.

Blume: Animals are actually quite good at turning cellulose into energy, which is, kind of surprising, since we as humans can't do much with it. But cattle have four stomachs and great biology to turn cellulose into energy.

Flatow: And so there's enough - you're saying there's enough out of that corn to both give us the food we need than when we feed the cattle and to make the alcohol that we could use in our cars?

Blume: Well, we're doing it right now. In fact, you know, the alcohol is produced in the United States. Produces this byproduct called dry distiller's grains, and this is not an exotic idea or a new idea. This stuff is even traded on the New York Stock Exchange every day. So, it's a standard animal feed, and in fact, its effects are so well known that the revenuers - people who used to look for illegal alcohol producers, would go to county fairs and see who had the fattest hogs or cows to determine who was distilling alcohol in the county.

Flatow: We've heard economists and other scientists say that corn is not the best source for feed stock for making alcohol.

Blume: Well, I would agree with that. Alcohol is being made from corn now because up until now we've had vast surpluses of it to the point where we actually subsidized farmers in off years not to grow too much corn, because it would depress the price too much. Now corn only gives you about 250 gallons per acre in terms of yield.

There are many other crops that I talked about in my book that are far superior, both for producing energy and for animal feed. For instance sugar beets are a standard in Europe where instead of 250 gallons an acre, we're looking at over a thousand gallons and twice the animal feed that corn provides.

Or we can be looking at things like sweet sorghum, which looks a lot like corn but grows with a fraction of the water and fertilizer, produces over a thousand gallons of alcohol per acre in the same place we'd normally grow corn, and in a lot of places where corn won't grow.

Flatow: Mm-hm. You don't see in your book - you don't see this as a big business issue, but more producing alcohol on a community level.

Blume: Well, you know, there's good economic and ecological reasons, to change the way we produce alcohol. Right now the size of plants that everybody considers economic are pretty big, 100 million gallons per year, but you run into logistical and ecological problems when you go that large.

You know, you start going as much as 30 and 40 miles away to bring corn into a plant that size. Now for instance, we were just talking about the distillers grains. Well, to send those somewhere else, you pretty much have to get the water out of them, and make them into dried distillers grains. So, that would be the case of your transporting some of it, because water's heavy...

Flatow: Mm.

Blume: But if the plant was smaller and all the inputs for the plant came from right around the plant, then actually the byproducts could be sent wet directly to cattle and adjoining cattle locations.

And that would cut the energy used to make alcohol in half, because the energy of drying the grain so that we have a place to ship it is a consequence of scale. The plants are too big. So what I propose in my book is that we look at much smaller scales, community stills, one million to maybe five million gallons per year, and basically one or more of these in every county in the United States.

Flatow: And so you'd have farmers then pooling or working together to become methanol [sic - "ethanol"] producing places, or will there not be a farmer or would it be a certain other entity doing it?

Blume: There's room for all kinds of entities to make alcohol, but 50 percent of the alcohol in the United States right now is made by farmer cooperatives in the Midwest, and those are big plants. But smaller operations could be operated by entrepreneurs or by farmers on contract.

There's a concept in agriculture - small agriculture - called community-supported agriculture. It was the way I farmed for ten years. Which is where people subscribe to my farm, and I supply them with food all through the season.

Flatow: Mm

Blume: Now, we can do the same thing with energy if a group of drivers gets together and starts a local alcohol station, then contracts with the farmer to produce the million gallons a year needed by that station. That could be a really direct linkage between the producer and the user, and the farmer has a sustainable income, and the users get the best price possible on the fuel, although there are a few large corporations in the middle who probably don't get anything.

Flatow: Mm-hm. When does it start to make sense for a farmer to do this?

Blume: Well, in my book, I show a model that works as low as 10,000 gallons per year, because the byproducts from making alcohol are actually more valuable than the alcohol, and this is really something that needs to be expanded.

For instance, instead of just taking let's say the dried distillers grains, and feeding them to cattle, well that's a fairly simple use of the byproduct. But let's say instead we took that byproduct and we fed it to like say mushrooms, in other words we use that raw material to grow mushrooms on first.

Well, we get a great crop of mushrooms first, then the byproduct from the mushroom production is still a large volume of the material, we can then use that to feed fish, because the proteins have now been very conveniently rearranged to mushroom mycelium to be more nutritious for fish.

The fish eats the byproduct and then of course some of what they eat goes out the back door, and now we have fish water that's full of nutrients, we can use that to raise organic vegetables in greenhouses, heated by the waste heat of the alcohol fuel plant, and with the atmosphere enriched by the carbon dioxide exhaled by the yeast, while they make the alcohol, so by integrating all the different materials that come out of the plant, these alcohol plants actually ought to (unintelligible) major food centers of a wide variety of high-protein foods.

So, rather than there just being a simple way of making auto fuel, they're really a way of creating food stability in each region.

Flatow: So you're asking for a total rearrangement in the way we farm land?

Blume: Oh, you know this is the way we used to farm them, Carl...

Flatow: Mm-hm.

Blume: And - I'm sorry, I was mentioning your brother, Ira. You know, farmers used to never sell anything that couldn't walk or fly off the farm, because there was no point in selling a raw material like corn to someone else to fatten their cattle.

Most small farms in the past used to always add value to the raw material by raising something with it, and then selling the meat, or the chickens with the eggs, or whatever, because that's where the money was.

And then today in agriculture, the total byword in agriculture is value added, and the USDA is constantly putting up programs that teach farmers to do exactly what we're talking about.

Flatow: Mm-hm. Talking with David Blume, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas! 1-800-989-8255. I was - interesting to see in the paper today that despite the wet spring and planting season that farmers had, they're going to have a bumper crop of corn this year.

Blume: Absolutely, and last year, you know, we had the biggest crop we had had in about 33 years. We actually ended up with a surplus of 1.6 billion bushels of corn. Now that flies in the face of all the propaganda against alcohol, because if ethanol was driving up the price of corn, there's an embedded assumption in there that there wasn't enough corn to go around, and so ethanol was competing with food for the very same grain and that drove the price up.

But what do you say when there's a surplus of corn, that after everyone bought all the corn they wanted, there was corn left over, you would say that a surplus would drive down the price of corn, and that's what should have happened in a normal year, but as...

Flatow: Mm.

Blume: Some of the folks who have taken my suggestions and are now introducing a bill to stop the gaming of the commodity system, someone had their thumb on the scale so to speak, and is manipulating the market.

Flatow: You don't think that it's just the demand from overseas buying the corn up from the farmers, driving the price up?

Blume: A surplus is a surplus. We ended up with 1.6 billion extra bushels of corn after everyone bought all they could, foreign, domestic, everyone.

Flatow: Mm.

Blume: We have silos overflowing with corn in this country we cannot sell, so the price should go down if the market wasn't being manipulated.

Flatow: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with David Blume, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas! on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News, or we're talking about making alcohol. Let's see if we can get a phone caller or two into the program. Let's go to Scott in Moorhead, Minnesota. Hi, Scott.

Scott: Hi, how are you doing?

Flatow: Hi there.

Scott: My question is this, in northeast, northwest from Minnesota, we have a lot of programs going on where the government literally pays some of the farmers not to plant some or parts of their fields. Why can't rather then that money being used for that, why can't those fields be used for planting corn to be used for the ethanol or whatever?

Flatow: Mm-hm.

Blume: That's a great question. And the answer is, that's exactly what's going on. The amount of subsidy payments has been dropping dramatically since the alcohol-fuel industry has been taking up the surplus. The idea in the past was if you didn't pay people not to grow too much corn, the surplus would cause the price to crater, and all the farmers would lose money.

So it was economically smarter for having a stable food supply to - you know, to have some farmer...

Flatow: Mm.

Blume: Sit out a season or two and be able to keep the supply and demand kind of on par. But now that we're talking about growing different crops, for instance, up there in Minnesota, you could use wetland-reserve money and plant cattail marshes, you know, on a - low spots on the farm, and legally harvest the cattails, which are 60 percent starch.

And under the right conditions that we talked about in our book, you're able to actually get over 7000 gallons of alcohol per acre from cattails, which is, you know, many, many times the yield you get from corn. So I'd like to see farmers move to other crops.

And I'm working with the American Corn Growers' Association right now to explore diversifying cropping beyond corn to many other energy crops.

Flatow: Yeah, I hadn't heard about cattails, but cattails would even regrow themselves if you cut them down, would they not?

Blume: Oh, you can't stop them from growing.
(Soundbite of laughter)

Blume: You know, one of the things I talk about in my book, Ira, is that if we went to cattails to process the nation's sewage, which is already done in 500 communities across the country, we would solve a problem that was on the earlier show today on NPR, which is what happens in the dead zone in the Mississippi.

Because anywhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, if you flush a toilet, that ends up eventually in the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico, along with all the fertilizer. And that causes the dead zone in the Mississippi and the gulf...

Flatow: Mm-hm.

Blume: Which is where algae blooms and then decomposes using up the oxygen, and anything, you know, that can't swim or crawl away, dies of suffocation in the Gulf.

But if we went ahead and attack the problem from two directions, one, capture the nutrients upstream in cattails, we would end up using less than two percent of the farmland of the United States to produce all of the alcohol we need to replace all the gasoline and diesel, while we clean up the nutrients we dump in rivers from our sewage treatment plants.

But we can also go after the problem from the other end, in the Gulf itself. We can grow marine algae, and marine alga is basically also a plant. And these are, you know, macro-algae, they grow a foot and a half a day and - we caught kelp off the West Coast, we caught - used a different species in the Gulf.

And it's made out of fructose or corn syrup - sugar basically. We can supply the entire nation without using any soil if we went ahead and raised kelp both off of California and off of the Gulf to make alcohol from, and then we could use those useless pipelines coming up from the Gulf to distribute the alcohol around the nation.

Flatow: It sounds so simple. What's holding it up?

Blume: Well, part of it is - you know there's this - I mean...

Flatow: I have about a minute left, so if you can give me a quick answer.

Blume: The quick answer is it's politics, you know basically the people who control the energy that we are using today would like to keep that control, and pretty much stand in the way of other alternatives coming to play, and part of that is controlling the information people get about alcohol.

There's a long history of dirty tricks from big oil keeping people confused and off balance about alcohol, going all the way back to prohibition, which was actually completely funded by Rockefeller to take alcohol of the market as a fuel.

It had very little to do with drinking.

Flatow: Mm-hm.

Blume: So, we have a long history of battle with big oil and that's not over, but what I point out in my book is that we can win by not trying to go at the big scale, but doing it at the community scale, the entrepreneurial scale and start producing alcohol and food locally, and cleaning up our environment at the same time we produce fuel.

Flatow: Mm-hm. All right. David, I've run out of time. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us.

Blume: Thanks a lot, Ira.

Flatow: David Blume is executive director or the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas!, and if you'd like to pick that up, published last year.

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