I don’t expect to find hard-hitting journalism in an alumni magazine. But there big as Goldie Gopher’s buck teeth in the January-February issue of the U of M’s Minnesota Magazine is an article called Five Reasons Corn Ethanol Won’t Save the Planet. Apparently, at least one prominent alum was caught off guard by the article as well. It’s no secret Governor Tim Pawlenty (B.S. ’83, J.D. ’86) is a big fan of corn ethanol. So maybe it’s no surprise his office has contacted the editor, Shelly Fling, to complain. So have a few corporations and at least one commodity group that don’t cotton to criticism of corn. It appears Minnesota Magazine has gone off-leash and committed an act of brave journalism. Anyone who cares about good, thorough reporting on controversial issues, as well as the land grant mission in general, should send a letter to Fling (email@example.com) applauding such work. It sounds like the magazine could use a vote of confidence right about now.
The article, by respected environmental writer Greg Breining, pulls few punches. It provides a well-researched, itemized list of why corn-based ethanol may not be the ultimate environmental savior that some would have us believe:
(1) Ethanol production requires almost as much energy as it yields.
(2) It isn’t easy being “green” when growing corn.
(3) Corn crowds out wildlife.
(4) Corn ethanol doesn’t cut enough greenhouse gases.
(5) We can’t grow enough corn.
It then goes on to describe how innovations such as cellulosic biofuels derived from prairie plants could bring about truly sustainable energy security.
Since Minnesota Magazine is the official organ of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, Breining uses U of M scientists and U of M research as the source material for his article. Reading the article one not only learns a lot about ethanol and other biofuels, but also gets a sense of what an impressive land grant institution the U is—we’ve got ecologists, economists and other scientists doing world-class research on one of the most vexing problems of our time.
No matter what one believes about ethanol and biofuels in general, the Minnesota Magazine article is an example of why the land grant institution system was created almost a century and a half ago. Land grants are supposed to use research and education to ask the kinds of hard questions the private sector can’t or won’t. Right now, corn ethanol is making money, so private firms and commodity groups are interested in asking questions like, “How can we squeeze more fuel out of a bushel of corn?” Asking questions that go along the lines of, “Is corn ethanol the right direction to go in the first place?” isn’t in their best interest. As a very smart farmer once told me while discussing mainstream agricultural research: “We have become incredibly accurate at hitting the wrong target.”
Cellulosic biofuels aren’t a going commercial venture right now. Perhaps they will be someday, but it will be awhile before you can pull into a gas station and fill up on prairie petrol. It’s looking like many of the benefits such fuels can provide in the near term are “public goods”—cleaner water, less erosion, a reduction in greenhouse gases, more wildlife cover. Those types of goods are hard to attach a price tag to. They are difficult to put in a corporation’s annual report to shareholders. A private firm’s research and development budget can’t justify itself based on how many bobolinks it will ultimately produce.
Ventures that provide a public good need a kick-start from a publicly-funded institution. That’s where a land grant like the U of M comes in. And that’s why it’s important we provide more public funds to continue this kind of research, as MEP-member groups are asking for during this legislation session.
Corn ethanol is the golden boy right now, and has experienced more than its share of positive publicity—some deserved, some a little suspect. A closer examination of the facts are in order as we consider our energy future. Believe me, corn ethanol’s support in the business and political world is sturdy enough to withstand a little media coverage not orchestrated by an agribusiness PR firm. And what better place to start than in a magazine serving the grads of a land grant university? Such digging may irritate a few alums in high places, but maybe it will remind them that questioning conventional wisdom shouldn’t stop once the diploma is in hand.