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 >

The Genesis of Corn-Fed Cars

Iowa Corn Indy 250

Also contributing to this story is Dennis Keeney, PhD, MS. | Over the next six months, this bimonthly blog series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol,” will initiate a conversation about ethanol and the current environmental and economic impacts of its use.  This first post addresses the progression of ethanol use in the U.S., and the forces that have gotten us to where we are today.

This June at the “Iowa Corn Indy 250,” flags touting “Iowa Corn” and t-shirts promoting “Corn Power” were a common sight at the Newton, Iowa racetrack. The slogans are no surprise, given two facts: first, that the race is sponsored by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, and second, fellow racing giant NASCAR’s  announcement last year that they will partner with American ethanol producers to fuel its fleet with a gasoline blend containing 15 percent corn ethanol.

At a time when the buzz about corn ethanol seems to have died down on the coasts, its advocates are speaking up, and production in the Midwest continues to ramp up to record levels in light of government subsidies and mandates that spurred the growth of the industry over the last decade. Today, 40 percent of the corn crop in the U.S. goes to ethanol production. Read More >

Increasing global food security: The next gold rush?

What do Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Monsanto, Kraft Foods, and Wal-Mart have in common?

Some of the most financially successful companies in the world? Absolutely. Exploiters of workers and the environment? Some say so. The newest solution to global food insecurity and natural resource conservation? Apparently so.

These seven global companies, along with ten others spanning the agricultural value chain (including BASF, Bunge Limited, General Mills, Metro AG, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, and Yara International) are at the center of a new strategy presented at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland on January 28th. Announced by Rajiv Shah, Director of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the strategy is called “Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A roadmap for stakeholders” and aims to increase food production in an environmentally sustainable way while spurring economic growth. Each decade, the initiative aims to: (1) increase agricultural production by 20% to eliminate hunger and undernourishment; (2) reduce greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of production by 20%; and (3) decrease rural poverty by 20%.

Why is a “new vision for agriculture” needed?First and foremost, even in our world of plenty, nearly a billion people remain undernourished, 98% of who live in developing countries.The world’s population continues to grow at a rate of about 200,000 people per day, putting greater pressure on food production systems. At the same time, the intensity of food consumption is growing in emerging markets such as China; as people’s incomes rise, so does their demand for meat and dairy products, foods which are much more land and energy-intensive to produce.Another challenge arises as urban populations grow. We passed the point at which just as many people live in urban areas as do rural areas in 2007. This trend of urbanization will likely continue, requiring additional resources for packaging, shipping, storing, and distributing food to urban populations.

More food is needed, but it must be produced in environmentally sustainable ways if we expect the earth to continue to support us. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment revealed the horrifying extent to which humans have degraded the natural environment through our efforts to secure food, water and fuel (most of this damage has occurred over the past 50 years). One of the most alarming repercussions of human activity on the environment is global climate change, which will have dire consequences for health – including food security – in the coming years. Agriculture both contributes to and is threatened by environmental degradation and climate change. Additionally, the current agricultural system is heavily reliant on oil, and considering that oil is believed to have reached global peak production, the food system must undergo a massive transition if it is to function in a world of energy scarcity. Read More >