There's only one problem. Corn takes land. Land good enough to farm is the scarcest resource on the planet. To convert to ethanol we would have to clear most of America's forests and/or drain our wetlands and still end up with more erosion-prone land used for corn.
An acre of corn produces about 300-gallons of ethanol per year. U.S. vehicles burn about 300 billion gallons of gasoline per year. Cars can burn an 85 percent ethanol blend without engine damage, but we'd need to plant 850-million acres of corn. The United States doesn't have that much cropland. U.S. farmers currently plant only 330-million acres to crops in total and only 73-million acres of corn.
The additional ethanol plants already being built will demand another six to 10 million acres of corn by 2008. Which state's wildlife habitat will we clear to supply them?
Don't forget that better emissions technology has already cut air pollution per car by nearly 95 percent and hybrid gas-electric vehicles promise to give us 40 percent more miles per gallon burned.
Remember, too, that American farmers last year harvested the world's largest-ever corn crop- and it wasn't enough to meet the global demand for livestock feed. Grain prices went so high that ethanol plants couldn't bid for corn. World grain stocks went down. Rain forest was cleared for farming in the tropics.
If America seriously tried to burn ethanol, we'd probably start by planting grain on the 32-million acres of high-risk land in the U.S. Conservation Reserve. Much of that land, however, is prone to drought and wind erosion. Worse, its yields would be low.
More important, the world is heading for three times as much feed demand in 2050. The human population will grow by perhaps 1.5 billion before it tops out. China's meat demand is soaring, India's milk demand is soaring, and neither of those densely populated countries has any additional cropland available.
Brazil has a lot of pasture and brushland that could be planted to corn, supplying world food and feed demand while America turns its corn into ethanol. But that would give Brazil the profitable part of the corn market.
Ethanol is one of the election year standbys. But it is fool's gold that will tarnish the environment and slip money from the pockets of taxpayers, motorists and America's farmers.
• Dennis T. Avery is a former State Department agricultural adviser and a Senior Fellow at The Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington, D.C.
The Old Ethanol Scam