Posts by:

Dennis Keeney

Dennis Keeney

Visiting Scholar

Center for a Livable Future

Food System Musings, from the Dentist’s Chair

I am in a dental surgeon’s chair, waiting for a routine X-ray to confirm that my recent tooth repair was successful. The main north-south street of Ames flows by, and I gaze across a parking lot at the old high school, nicely refurbished as the city hall, where 55 years ago young people who are now my age cavorted, learned and went on to lives filled with success and trials. The world spun on the same axis then but seems different in fundamental ways.

A Sysco semi blocked my view for a moment, and I wondered what it contained, sure that none of the food came from the small farms of Iowa that existed 55 years ago. Sysco is a large wholesale processed food distributor; the semi undoubtedly had large beef steaks and ground beef that came from the sad animals that Read More >

Do Farmers Benefit from Biofuels?

This is the tenth blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”

Biofuels, particularly corn-based ethanol, offered the promise of large financial returns to both the farmer and to the rural community. Have these promises been realized? And how have the small-scale farmers fared against the land barons?

Locally sourced biofuels offer potential financial benefits:

  • Increase in corn (and other starch grain) prices and oil seed prices, resulting from increased demand
  • Opportunity for investment in infrastructure through stock options or cooperatives
  • Greater employment opportunities for rural community

Potential drawbacks include Read More >

Biofuels: Innovations Needed

This is the ninth blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”

Innovations in biofuels are becoming more important than ever. We can expect a perfect storm of predicaments that make this even more true. Recent predictions are that gasoline prices will continue to rise steadily, perhaps reaching $5 per gallon by mid-summer. Corn prices also are projected to be at record highs. Projections of a major drought in the Midwest promises to raise corn prices even higher, perhaps to the point where corn ethanol production will be curtailed for lack of a profit in spite of the high gasoline prices. And of course, fossil fuels can last only so long, even if new discoveries are temporarily delaying the more drastic effects of peak oil and gas. Read More >

The Cellulose Quandary

Must ethanol come from corn?

This is the eighth blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”

Cellulose-based ethanol may be a bust. Ethanol produced from switchgrass is proving very different. Much will depend on innovations in ethanol production from corn stover and corn cobs.

In the race to find new sources of energy, ethanol and biodiesel got the upper hand. These biofuels are easily produced—ethanol from corn grain, and biodiesel from soybean oil—and a combination of subsidies, import controls, and legislation further pushed ethanol to the front.* Read More >

Indirect Land Use Change and Biofuels: Real or Hypothetical?

This is the sixth blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”

While increased food prices is the most contentious of the many controversies surrounding the rapid increase in ethanol production from corn, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from what is termed “indirect land use change” (ILUC) ranks a close second in the debates. (Here is a one study on ILUC.)

The controversy was triggered by a 2008 paper in Science by Searchinger et al. that stated, “Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. Read More >

Fossil Energy Alternates: Shale Gas, Oil Shale, and Tar Sands

Alternate fossil energy sources pose their own hazards

This is the fourth blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”

While ethanol is the main subject of our blog series, we want to take a look at other so-called alternative energy sources that have been finding their way into the news lately. Shale gas, oil shales, and tar sands are actually not new—they have been long known, but little exploited. Rising oil prices are making us take another look at them.

Some people are saying this era is the end of “peak easy oil.” While new technologies have lowered costs of production and processing, it is only a matter of time until we are in “peak difficult oil.” Read More >

Does Ethanol Pollute the Environment … or Does Corn?

Which is the culprit? Ethanol or corn?

This is the third blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”

When environmentalists complain about ethanol, they complain about the negative impacts of an ethanol economy: increased levels of nitrate, sediment and pesticide pollution, as well as decreased biodiversity and fewer small farms. Are these valid complaints? Or are they actually complaining about corn? Are we talking about “failed agronomy?”

First, some facts. The amount of land dedicated to corn today is at an all-time high. And so is the land in soybeans. The reason is clear: corn and soybeans are at all-time high prices and returns. The USDA is putting less emphasis on conservation reserve programs, and so farmers with their eyes on the bottom line are putting more land into corn and soybeans. Read More >

An Ethanol Timeline: How We Got Here

Model Ts were "flex-fuel" and some could run on ethanol.

This second blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol,” continues the conversation about ethanol and explores the forces that converged to get us to this critical—and contentious—moment in biofuels history.

Since 1826, when it was first used to power internal combustion engines (ethanol timeline), ethanol has been of interest to entrepreneurs and agriculturists as a possible alternate fuel. As early as 1862, it was heavily taxed to pay for the Civil War. In 1908, Henry Ford produced the flex-fuel Model T, although by then cheap oil took over the powering of the nation and ethanol languished.

Fast-forward to 1974, when Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the main producer of high fructose corn syrup, found itself in a quandary. The wet milling process used to manufacture corn syrup from corn grain created, in excess, a by-product known as ethanol, and ADM launched a shrewd search to find or create a market for it. (See this paper on the “Ethanol Swindle.”) Capitalizing on the “Project Independence” initiative started by the Nixon administration to reach total independence from foreign energy sources, ADM began a political campaign promoting ethanol as an additive to gasoline—and the current ethanol industry was born. (Read this paper for more on the history.) Read More >

100 years of artificial nitrogen – but how many left?

I recently was asked in an interview to name the one thing I would change in the world if I had the power to do so. Surprising even myself, I replied quickly “the Haber-Bosch (H-B) process for industrial nitrogen fixation. Imagine – a world without synthetic N! One can imagine the blank look I got when I pulled that one out of the blue.

My response came from a professional lifetime studying the good and bad of fertilizers, especially nitrogen. And it comes from much reading of the literature on food production and the ills of our advanced society. So, bear with me as I look into a reverse crystal ball for what-if, realizing all the while that there is no way of going back, but examining whether the reverse crystal ball could help us move forward.


Carl Bosch

Much of my background material comes from Vaclav Smil’s book, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and The Transformation of World Food Production (2001), sprinkled in with Smil’s Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century (2000) and L.T. Evans’s Feeding the Ten Billion: Plants and Population Growth (1998). There are many other books and papers I could cite, but most are repeating much of the same material.

So, what is the H-B process anyway, and how did it come about? A bit of history:

The world, especially Europe and China, had gained population in bursts, but around 1500 farming moved from subsistence to commercial. Farmers owned their land and developed cropping rotations centered on increasing carrying capacity for animals with fertility supplied through manures and nitrogen coming from clover. Soon, high-yielding cereals were introduced and population headed toward the first billion. Read More >

Corn Panic

By Dr. Dennis Keeney, Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

corn-for-ethanolThe USDA 2011 Prospective Plantings Report was one of the most anticipated planting reports in several years. It came on the heels of a shocking Grain Stocks Report issued last month, which showed that corn stocks have come down 15% since March 2010. Ending stocks are projected to be only 675 million bushels, about 5% of the projected marketing year consumption, while consumption of the current marketing year corn was higher than in 2009 and well above projected consumption. Lowered stocks were also caused by a smaller than expected corn crop due to cold and rainy weather in the Corn Belt in 2010. Corn prices almost immediately increased by another $1 per bushel on the heels of a doubling of price during the past year. This dramatic price jump portends another round of world-wide food price increases, similar to those in 2008-2009. Already, some political uprisings in the Middle East have been blamed to some extent on rapid food price increases. In 2008-2009, yields bounced back to normal and the ethanol demand was much lower.

Why has this happened? Will it be alleviated by a bumper crop on more acres in 2011? Or has the grain commodity price structure started a trend towards a “new normal” of steadily increasing prices and more shortages?

The March 31 crop report indicated that farmers “intend” to plant 5% more acreage in corn, 8% more in wheat and 15% more in cotton while cutting soybean planting by only 1%. This adds up to 4 million more acres of cropland than there were in 2010.  One wonders where that extra land is coming from. Most likely, it is land being retired from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and includes more fragile meadow and grassland. That is not good news for the environment. Just recently, a number of congressional members called for the immediate release of some of the 31.2 million acres of CRP for cropland.

I would like to explore what corn is used for and why the sudden drop in ending stocks surprised so many people, before presenting some scenarios that may play out in the near future. Read More >