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Corn Terrorism linked to Climate Change?

May 19, 2010
tags: ,

Thanks to Heather for this one.


If you’re skeptical, or wish to learn more about this, check out this article titled Globesity: How obesity and climate change draw from the same roots. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Globesity’s message is somewhat at odds with research published in April that concludes overweight people, by requiring more food and energy to transport, produce more greenhouse gases. “Moving about in a heavy body is like driving in a gas guzzler,” one of the two London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine authors told the U.K. Sun, which ran the thoroughly lame headline “Fatties Cause Global Warming.”

Blaming overweight people isn’t helpful, said Holdsworth, because it masks the bigger story of why more people are gaining weight. She describes “obesidemic environments,” in which schools and workplace cafeterias offer only high-calorie foods; in which urban design discourages walking; in which government subsidies make fresh produce more expensive than potato chips.

Image courtesy of Tom Twigg/Grist

Of course obesity should not be the only worry on our minds when it comes to corn terrorism. What about the ways in which corn is produced? In particular, Genetically Modified (GM) corn. So I surfed around trying to find information about GM corn and GM food more generally in Singapore and apparently we have a Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC). Apart from all the usual FAQs about GM food (which you can find on the advisory’s website provided), I am deeply concerned about GM food availability and its labelling in Singapore. As some of you know, food labelling in Singapore is a touchy subject and we have not yet gotten any approval for proper green labelling or labelling of GM products, much less to ask for less packaging! Anyway so here is the advisory’s take on labelling:

Will foods produced from GMOs carry special labels in Singapore?

There are currently no legislations and guidelines for the labelling of GM foods in Singapore.

GM food labelling is a complex issue. It has implications on food imports, food prices, trade, practicality of enforcement etc. International consensus on GM food labelling has not yet been reached. The Codex Alimentarius, the world’s authority on food safety and labelling, continues its work on the issue. The Codex Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) is examining the various facets of the GM food labelling issue to come up with an internationally accepted position on the issue. Singapore, being a member of Codex, is working with other countries in the CCFL on the matter. GMAC has also set up a subcommittee to monitor relevant international developments and to help formulate a national position on the GM labelling issue that will be in line with international standards.

Meanwhile, it is accepted by most countries that GM labelling is not for food safety reasons but to provide consumers with choice. Although the AVA’s current food regulations do not require GM food to be specially labelled, GM foods, like all other food products, must meet existing food labelling requirements with regard to ingredient listing and information to facilitate tracing and recall. The local authorities will work to ensure that GM foods commercially available in Singapore are safe for consumption, and will also continue to monitor international developments closely to ensure that Singapore’s labelling requirements are up to date.

So far in this post, the link between corn and climate change are two-fold.

  1. Obesity
  2. GM Food and associated risks and debates

It’s about to get a lot more complicated. Apparently, scientists are now researching if GM crops are going to be NECESSARY should climate change set about rise in temperatures and a change in well, the climate. Check out these articles

GM food special report: Crops that survive climate change
GM foods “could feed growing population during climate change”
Climate change farmers “need GM crop”
Greenpeace: GM food and crop

And then there’s the issue about corn and biofuels. In 2007, it was reported that corn biofuel was “dangerously oversold” as green energy. The report said:

Further concerns are contained in a recent study from the World Resources Institute (PDF), cited in the report. It says the development of a corn-based ethanol market would only exacerbate problems already associated with large-scale corn production.

Such problems include groundwater depletion, soil erosion, algae blooms, and the formation of “dead zones” in waterways inundated with pesticide and fertilizer runoff.

Read more here.

I also managed to find several articles which debate corn biofuels. They were reported in 2007-8.

Corn biofuels spell death for the Gulf of Mexico
Report Pooh-poohs Corn biofuels
Is Algae worse than Corn for biofuels?
The case against biofuels: Probing ethanol’s hidden costs

In addition, Tad W. Patzek of U.C. Berkeley Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering wrote a paper titled Sustainability of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle in 2004. The paper saw important empirical research done on corn biofuels and assessed the level of sustainability of the cycle. The conclusions listed below, are evidence that this is more than the usual “food vs. fuel” kind of debate.

Here are his conclusions:

1. Corn-ethanol brings no energy savings and no lessening of the U.S. energy dependency on foreign crude oil, natural gas, and liquified petroleum gas. The opposite happens, we use more methane, LPG and crude oil. We then burn these fuels to produce corn-ethanol and, finally, we burn the ethanol in our cars at the additional cost of extensive environmental damage.

2. Because of its reliance on fossil energy, the industrial corn-ethanol cycle generates more equivalent carbon-dioxide than would be generated by the energy-equivalent quantity of gasoline or diesel fuel penalized by 15% to account for the cumulative use of free energy in their production. Currently these incremental emissions are 7.9 million tonnes of equivalent CO2 per year.

3. The taxpayers’ subsidies of the industrial corn-ethanol cycle are estimated at $3.8 billion in 2004. The parallel subsidies by the U.S. environment are estimated at $1.8 billion in 2004. The latter estimate will probably double when the restoration costs of aquifers, streams and rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico are also included.

4. The rate of sequestration of the unlimited solar energy as organic plant matter is controlled by the availability of water in soil, and the minerals dissolved in this water. For the reasons explained in this Report, water and soil nutrients are finite, easily degradable, and must be replenished by composting all corn plant leftovers, including the byproducts of ethanol production.

5. The mass balance of starch in dry corn grain sets the theoretical efficiency of conversion of corn to ethanol to 0.337 kg EtOH/kg dry kernels (0.423 L EtOH/kg dry kernels), or to 2.85 gallons EtOH/dry bushel = 2.42 gallons EtOH/equivalent bushel of corn with 15% moisture. Therefore, the USDA estimate of the conversion efficiency, 2.66 gallons EtOH/bushel, must be applied to dry corn, and not to corn with 15% of moisture.

6. In general, the USDA estimate of 2.66 gallons EtOH/bushel has been multiplied by the moist corn grain yield; this is incorrect and leads to an
overestimation of the corn-ethanol yield.

7. If used correctly, the USDA estimate is 93% of the theoretical efficiency of corn conversion into ethanol, I have used an 88% efficiency.

8. All the published fossil energy inputs into the industrial corn-ethanol cycle [3, 42, 47, 59, 70] have been corrected and/or amended. All the changes to these inputs have been detailed in Part I.

9. With the corrected estimates of the fossil fuel inputs to corn farming and ethanol production, presented in Part I, all published estimates predict that production of corn-ethanol is the fossil energy-loosing proposition, see Figure 2.16.

10. In view of Conclusion 4, the robust ∼30% energy credits for ethanol production used in [59, 70] are indefensible. In Part II, the Second Law analysis of the industrial corn-ethanol cycle reaffirms this conclusion.

11. The mere energy balance of the industrial corn-ethanol cycle does not take into account the cumulative consumption of the non-fossil environmental resources: soil, water, air and minerals, and provides an incomplete picture of this cycle.

12. Because all the published First Law balances of the industrial corn-ethanol cycle are by definition incomplete, their comparison has led to different interpretations, and endless acrimonious debate, see e.g., [42], which served little useful purpose. Worse yet, this debate has diverted our collective attention from the real problems with corn-ethanol and provided cover for the ethanol lobby.

13. Only when the Second Law of thermodynamics and the concept of available free energy, or exergy, are introduced (Parts II and III, Appendix A and B), a definitive analysis of the industrial corn-ethanol cycle is possible.

14. In the Second Law analysis the environment is defined as anything but the top soil of the corn field, the corn plants, the ethanol-producing plants, and the devices that process the ethanol (internal combustion engines and fuel cells). The environment, therefore, is the sun, water, air, nutrients, crude oil, methane, coal, electricity, field chemicals, roads, trucks, etc., and the cold universe to which the heat generated by the cycle’s ethanol is rejected. Thus, the environment defined here cannot be dismissed summarily as a raving of a green lunatic.

15. By defining in Section II, Appendix A and B the irreversibility and sustainability, we can state qualitatively that the industrial corn-ethanol cycle, which relies heavily on mining the environment, is irrevocable and unsustainable. The common references to the cycle sustainability, see e.g., [12] are scientifically indefensible.

16. In view of Conclusion 4, the recently-advertised ethanol production from “agricultural waste,” i.e., from plant leaves, stems, and roots is also unsustainable.

17. Because the industrial corn-ethanol cycle is irrevocable, the precious natural resources wasted by it disappear forever from the earth, and diminish the wellbeing of our children.

18. The free energy available on the earth (exergy) is consumed by the industrial corn-ethanol cycle, and its cumulative net consumption is a good
quantitative indicator of the degree of unsustainability of this cycle.

19. The industrial corn-ethanol cycle is compared with the sun-driven ideal corn- ethanol cycle. The maximum useful free energy generated by the 80 Conclusions ideal cycle, 67 GJ/ha as corn-ethanol, produces useful shaft work, electricity, or both.

20. When an average car engine (20% efficiency) burns corn-ethanol, it produces 13.4 GJ/ha of useful work. A very efficient car engine (35% efficiency) produces 23 GJ/ha of useful work. An ideal fuel cell/electric motor car with 60% efficiency, produces 40 GJ/ha of useful work.

21. The maximum useful work from the ideal corn-ethanol cycle has been compared with the minimum reversible work required to undo the environmental damage caused by the industrial corn-ethanol cycle. Of course, this environmental damage cannot be undone in reality, and the minimum reversible restoration work is only a tool used to quantify the damage.

22. The cumulative exergy consumption in performing the minimum reversible work of “undoing” the industrial corn-ethanol cycle, exceeds by a factor 6, 3 and 2, respectively, the maximum useful work from a 20% efficient car engine, 35% efficient car engine, and 60% efficient fuel cell car.

23. No process change can improve the very unfavorable ratio of benefits from the industrial corn ethanol cycle to its environmental costs, and I have not yet included the potentially explosive cost of restoring surface and ground water, and soil contaminated by the fertilizer-, pesticide- and insecticiderich runoff from the corn fields.

See the full report here.

In conclusion, the corn-climate change debate is really 3-fold. The first being linked to obesity and how it allegedly leads to higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. Secondly, GM food is increasingly seen as the key to growing crops in a changing climate since scientists can tamper with genes to allow crops to become more resistant to rising temperatures and perhaps drought-like conditions. And finally, corn-ethanol biofuels were a huge debate in 2007-8 and arguably today as well. 

So… To Corn or Not to Corn? That is the question.


Patzek, T. W. (2004) Sustainability of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle University of California

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 9, 2010 2:54 pm

    The best quote of all time:

    “First, a simple comparison of energy content reveals that a dry ton of biomass crops — $40 is a reasonable current average cost — is comparable to oil at $10–13 a barrel.”
    — From Richard G Lugar and R James Woolsey Foreign Affairs article “The New Petroleum.”
    This is why former CIA Director James Woolsey was a keynote speaker at North American Industrial Hemp Council conferences. He knows which biomass crop is best for North America.

    Food vs Fuel
    Well, to start off, the true bio-energy industry will be built on lignocellulosic ethanol — not grain based ethanol (e.g., corn). It will use the WASTE straw from cereal crops including wheat, barley, rye, flax and hemp. This means that these crops will continue to be grown for grain and the waste straw will be processed into ethanol. They will no longer burn straw — which is of course bad for air quality — and will instead fuel automobiles with clean energy!

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