Four Myths the Ethanol Industry Wants You to Believe

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


The Renewable Fuels Association, a well-funded lobbyist group for Big Ethanol, recently responded to EWG’s report, Ethanol’s Broken Promise, by claiming that corn ethanol isn’t worse for the climate than gasoline.  

RFA hasn't done its homework. Recent peer-reviewed research shows that the model RFA uses to mount its defense drastically under-estimates carbon emissions.


So why are RFA’s conclusions on corn ethanol so different from EWG’s? Answer: RFA wants us to believe several crazy myths. Here are the top four Big Ethanol Myths the RFA is trying to spread: 

Myth #1: Using 40 percent of U.S. corn for ethanol doesn’t increase prices.

The U.S., the world’s top producer of corn, channels 40 percent of the crop to ethanol production. The basic truth about supply and demand is that when supply shrinks, prices rise. A team of leading scientists at the National Academies came to the consensus that using so much corn for ethanol increased the price of corn and other major animal feeds by 20 to 40 percent between 2007 and 2009.

No wonder anti-hunger organizations like Oxfam, Action Aid and more than 20 food industry associations are up in arms about corn ethanol.

Myth #2: Corn has magical properties and can increase yields infinitely.

Big Ethanol wants people to believe that corn plants can sense price fluctuations and change yields based on the market. As we point out in Ethanol’s Broken Promise, peer-reviewed studies show that industry claims that corn yields have magical properties are, to say the least, unrealistic.

Farmers respond to increased demand for corn by growing more of it and by seeking new land to farm. Plowing up acres of grassland and wetlands releases huge amounts of carbon into the air. RFA claims that if corn yields increase – again, magically -- we won’t need new land to grow more corn to replace that which is being used for ethanol.

Yet between 2008 and 2011, more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetland have been converted to produce just corn.  Plowing them released at least 80 million tons of carbon per year. And according to the United Nations, corn acreage has increased by 17 percent between 2005 and 2012. RFA claims this land conversion didn’t happen.

Where did these new acres come from? 

Myth #3: Corn doesn’t need water.

What? All plants need water to grow. Yet RFA’s favorite model, called GREET, ignores this simple fact.  It assumes that corn doesn’t need water.  

This assumption is so blatantly false, agricultural economists Farzad Taheripour, Thomas Hertel and Jing Liu at Purdue University, who developed the model GREET uses to determine corn ethanol’s carbon emissions, corrected this mistake last year in the journal Energy, Sustainability and Society. Taheripour and colleagues found that when you account for corn plants’ water need, corn ethanol is worse for the climate than gasoline. They concluded that “earlier studies, which failed to distinguish rainfed from irrigated lands, likely underestimated induced land use emissions due to ethanol production by more than one quarter.”

Myth #4: The global population eats too much.

According to the United Nations, more than 800 million people around the world go hungry every day. The ethanol industry wants to ignore the world’s poorest people, who must spend most of their income on food. When corn prices rise, many millions of people must struggle harder to feed themselves and their families. Some can’t make it.  

RFA lives in a world with magical plants that don’t need water and people who are never hungry. RFA needs a reality check.




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