Many students have learned from early partying days that ingesting a substance corrosive as Hawkeye Vodka is physically unhealthy. Pumping gasoline with 10, 15, or 85 percent of a slightly less distilled version of the drink is bad for the health of your vehicle. It corrodes the gas tank and fuel line, especially in cars manufactured before 2001.
Grain alcohol isn’t just bad for livers and cars. It’s bad for the environment, as well as the economy.
Tim Donohue is a bacteriology professor at the University of Wisconsin — Madison who studies renewable energy. Donohue told me that corn ethanol does have advantages over other fuel sources because it burns better, releasing fewer pollutants into the air. He said there are indirect factors to consider as well.
“On the other side, one must remember that growth of corn requires extensive use of fertilizer and pesticides,” Donohue wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.
He said the process of using fertilizer and pesticides produces enduring greenhouse gases that diminish air quality and harm the climate.
Corn-based ethanol has such minute environmental benefits that even the original climate-change warrior Al Gore stopped supporting it years ago. Gore called his initial support for ethanol subsidies a mistake, citing a soft spot for Iowa farmers among the reasons. As noted by Donahue, ethanol blends do burn cleaner than ordinary gasoline, but the additional fossil fuels used to produce them do not.
The environmental harm incurred by growing 90 million acres of corn is a necessary evil if it means cheaper food for the world’s poor, but not to the extent that our federal and state governments are subsidizing it so that we can have cheaper gasoline. Free markets almost always offer the best solutions. Like all of the protectionist policies President Trump is so fond of, the renewable fuel standard has myriad, albeit unintended, negative consequences.
More than a third of all corn produced in the U.S. is used for ethanol, which means higher food prices at home and abroad. Prices of flour and rice have spiked 50 percent since 2005. Ethanol hurts many farmers by driving up the price of their livestock feed. As Rich Lowry of National Review once noted, “Ethanol is so uneconomical that Congress supports it three different ways — with a mandate for its use, a tax credit to subsidize it, and a tariff to keep out competitors.” It has been an absolute boondoggle since the fuel standard began in 2005.
“But we need to support our farmers!” Republicans such as Sen. Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds self-righteously proclaim.
No, farmers are adults fully capable of unsubsidized self-sufficiency. Iowa voters know this. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took a bold stand against taxpayer-funded ethanol during his 2016 presidential campaign, and still managed to defeat 16 other Republicans in our state’s caucus.
Ethanol subsidies are not unlike a punch bowl full of Hawkeye Vodka. Both seem enticing in the moment, but everyone involved suffers in the end.
Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.