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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Response to "Corn-Based Ethanol"

Posted on January 22, 2013

By Maureen McCue, MD, PhD

Editor’s note:  This article was submitted in response to the article, “Corn-Based Ethanol:  A Win for Public Health and the Economy.”  The author of “An Iowa Doctor Responds" is Maureen McCue, MD PhD, a physician, professor, and member of the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Corn-based ethanol is an especially important topic for Iowans, living as we do where much of U.S. ethanol is produced.  As health professionals, we’re interested in moving away from known disease-inducing processes toward healthier alternatives.  There are many health reasons to reduce dependence on petroleum, given all the environmental, security and climate concerns its burning implies.  Unfortunately, promoting ethanol is neither the most efficient nor effective response to petroleum’s health threats.

Yes, tailpipe emissions contribute to many chronic non-communicable diseases.  However, most of Mr. Holmberg’s assertions and those of other ethanol promoters embed disinformation, distortion and/or red herrings, and do not adequately address important health-related issues.   

Ethanol:  Not likely to reduce disease

Asthma, premature births, cancer, autism, heart disease and the other diseases that Mr. Holmbert cites represent end points for a great number of environmental and social exposures well beyond petroleum; these include coal, other industrial sourced toxins, poverty and lack of health care, diet, and lifestyle.  Thus, we won’t reduce those diseases by producing ethanol, because the tiny amount of petroleum displaced by corn-based ethanol is only that, tiny. 

In fact, ethanol could not replace most of the petroleum we depend on even if the entire country’s corn crop were converted to fuel.  Given all the petroleum-based resources ethanol requires, including fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, transport, etc., increased ethanol production will at best have a very limited impact, if any, on the total cost and suffering from the diseases listed.  Promoting a healthier, non-corn-based diet as Pollan has encouraged would likely bring down the numbers quoted much quicker.  Taking Pollan’s words out of context to support ethanol insults his well-known efforts to address the ills induced by processed-corn-based diets.

Maintain food supplies as food

The necessity of maintaining food supplies as food can hardly be overstated as the world faces a changing climate and rapidly evolving challenges to food production which depend on established weather and precipitation patterns.  Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, agrees that fuel prices and the rising standard of living in emerging countries and the increased demand for meat have indeed had significant impacts on food price inflation.  This is yet another reason to avoid diverting more food resources to fuel, not a reason to support it!

Iowa’s confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) managers love to tout the benefits of dry distillers grain (DDG).  Finding a beneficial byproduct for any polluting process is laudatory.  However, distilling itself requires fossil fuel energy and produces a long list of unhealthy emissions including acetaldehyde, a particularly foul pollutant.  Concerns beyond reduced waste and methanol in corn-fed cattle are omitted in DDG claims: the promotion of consumption of ever more meat and CAFOs themselves.  Iowa’s CAFOs are prodigious air and water polluters.  DDG is not the answer to these important issues.  Cows rotated on pasture do not require DDG.  Health care professionals should promote less red meat consumption, not find mechanisms to support a dirty, unhealthy industry. 

Regarding alternative liquid fuels, potentially switching to compressed natural gas (CNG–aka LNG) as a solution to petroleum pollution in the U.S. is a bit of a red herring, but should be acknowledged.  Currently I would not support it given its dependence on another destructive, polluting industry, fracking.  Nevertheless it has been demonstrated by Bangladesh, a poor country of 160 million, that a quick switch to CNG can be accomplished.

Rethink the energy paradigm

EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is a reality check on the true potential for ethanol as well as petroleum itself.  We are in an era of extreme sources of energy using ever-increasing amounts of energy to produce increasingly smaller amounts.  It’s time to rethink the entire energy paradigm–while we still have a civilization and environment to save.  Tinkering at the margins buys us little time.  We urgently need to come up with solutions that rapidly reduce carbon emissions by 80% and get serious about mitigating global warming. 

If these aren’t enough reasons to reject support for ethanol, there are more: ethanol’s water consumption in a world facing a water scarcity crisis is itself unsustainable; relations between hunger and violence threaten security; and we overlook the potential for explosions in the ethanol blending process or transport at our peril.  To quote an anonymous railroad insider regarding safety, “our rail shipping arrangements are in critical need of realignment; it’s not a matter of if, but when, we experience a deadly explosion.”

Rather than debate ethanol as a cure for what ails us, let’s move rapidly to a transportation energy future based primarily on public transportation, walkable/bikeable cities, increased fuel efficiency, electric cars, car sharing, passenger rail, and related solutions that produce less pollution, cleaner air and healthier citizens.  If other Western countries can do it, and we can fly people to the moon, surely as the most powerful nation in the world we can move to a clean energy future without sacrificing health, food, water, air, soil, security, or risking climate annihilation!


Virginia Smedberg said ..

I highly recommend Joel Salatin's books, esp. "Everything I want to do is Illegal", and "Folks, this ain't Normal", in which he demonstrates the ecological way to produce meat for food, healthily for people and the environment, including LOCAL (thus removing the transport aspect), and a whole lot more.

February 19, 2013

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