Farmer in a corn field

Environmental cost of using corn as biofuel “much greater” than corn as food

Image credit: Dreamstime

A comparison of the economic and environmental benefits and costs of using corn as a fuel have demonstrated that the plant may be more effectively used as food.

As the pressure mounts to find renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, biofuels such as corn and sugarcane are increasing being turned to as possible fuels of the future. Growing these biofuels, however, uses a huge amount of land and for many years questions have been asked about whether this space is best used for growing fuel.

A study by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, part of a National Science Foundation project to study the environmental impact of US agriculture, has demonstrated that growing corn for fuel could have hidden economic and environmental costs.

The researchers looked at the broad economics of agricultural production, using a view of the system called “critical zone service”, which can be used to analyse the impact of growing corn on the economy and environment.

The critical zone is the permeable layer at the surface of the soil; the composition of this zone is affected by agriculture. Using this view, the researchers were able to turn this impact into a tangible social cost.

“There are a lot of abstract concepts to contend with when discussing human-induced effects in the critical zone in agricultural areas,” said Meredith Richardson, a graduate student involved in the project.

“We want to present it in a way that will show the equivalent dollar value of the human energy expended in agricultural production and how much we gain when corn is used as food versus biofuel.”

The researchers began by creating an inventory of the resources consumed in corn production, and their economic and environmental cost in terms of energy available and expended. They then quantified the benefits and costs – such as effects on air and water quality, and societal value – of corn being used for fuel and food in terms of critical zone services.

They found that the social and economic worth of food production is $1,492 per hectare. This compares with a $10 loss per hectare when it is used for biofuel.

“Using corn as a fuel source seems to be an easy path to renewable energy,” said Richard Yuretich, the National Science Foundation programme director for Critical Zone Observatories. “However, this research shows that the environmental costs are much greater, and the benefits fewer, than using corn for food.”

The future of farming and how technology can enable new approaches in agriculture towards solving the world’s food and biofuel crisis is a key area which engineers are addressing, with both research and practical applications.

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