Biofuels no panacea for state

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From a column by Mike Ivey in The Capital Times:

. . . any claims about the Badger State becoming a "worldwide leader in the developing bio industry" must be taken with a grain of salt.

Overall, producers in the U.S. made nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol last year, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. Nearly all of it was made from edible corn kernels.

Corn is a fundamental U.S. food ingredient, used in everything from soft drinks to pancake syrup. It's also a staple throughout Latin America, where soaring prices for tortillas has already sparked protests in Mexico.

Moreover, with farmers planting corn this spring at unprecedented rates to take advantage of rising commodity prices -- in some cases taking land out of conservation -- food costs will see more upward pressure.

In fact, national ethanol critic Lester Brown maintains the world is headed for a showdown over corn.

"The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world's 2 billion poorest people," he warns. "The risk is that millions of those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder will start falling off as higher food prices drop their consumption below the survival level."

Because of those concerns, more observers are saying corn-based ethanol is already becoming an outdated technology. Scientists and a growing number of biotechnology companies are attempting to remove corn from the ethanol equation.

"There is enormous growth potential" for alternative fuels, says McKinsey & Co. analyst Jens Riese. "But we need to be smarter than just building the next corn ethanol plant."

For more information, check out Friday's conference "Sustaining the Wisconsin Landscape: Biofuels Challenges and Opportunities" at Monona Terrace. Details online or call 263-3063.