Why Do We Burn Our Food?

Written by Carl Brehmer

File:Les Plantes Cultivades. Cereals. Imatge 3212.jpg
             Image via Wikimedia

      Out of curiosity I ran some numbers related to ethanol production, which turns food into fuel.  To produce one gallon of ethanol about 22 pounds of corn (1) needs to be sacrificed.  22 lbs of corn contains about 10,560 calories, (2) which are enough calories to feed one person for about four days. (3) Therefore the calories sacrificed to make 90 gallons of ethanol could sustain one person for an entire year.  Since the US currently produces 10.6 billion gallons (4) of ethanol yearly, enough corn is being sacrificed each year for ethanol production in the United States to feed 117 million people.  This is occurring at the same time that the United States Department of Agriculture is reporting that over 50,000,000 people living in the United States are in “food-insecure households” (5) because their families do not have sufficient funds to purchase adequate amounts of food.

      The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates that by 2022 36 billion gallons of biofuels will be produced in the United States.  15 billion gallons of this biofuel is expected to come from corn. (6) This will require the sacrifice of enough food to feed 166,000,000 people–over half the current population of the United States.  This doesn’t even take into consideration that it takes at least 2/3 gallon of fossil fuel, by the US Department of Energy’s own figures, to produce one gallon of ethanol. (7)  (Ethanol producers do not use ethanol to produce ethanol because it is too expensive.)

      Why do we do this?  Because our policy makers have come to believe that the airborne plant food carbon dioxide is a “pollutant” (8) that must be reduced or severe damage will be done to the biosphere. Acting on this belief the US government is planning on turning enough food into fuel by 2022 that could feed half the population of the United States!  Even if carbon dioxide were a “pollutant” the use of biofuels produces little or no net reduction in carbon emissions since by some estimates it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than what one gets back from it when it is burned.  “Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion to ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make 1 gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTU.” (9)  

      One might protest these figures saying that not all ethanol is made from corn, because there is also “cellulosic ethanol,” which is made from the non-edible parts of plants. The problem is that there are “currently, no large-scale cellulosic ethanol production facilities . . . operating or under construction.” (10)  This is because “cellulosic ethanol” is much more expensive to produce than corn ethanol.  For example, it is estimated that a large-scale “cellulosic ethanol” production facility would cost in the neighborhood of $300 million dollars to build (11) vs. $67 million for a corn-based plant of similar size and a number of “cellulosic ethanol” production hurdles have yet to be overcome. (12)

      So, why has carbon dioxide become a “pollutant” when throughout the known geological history of our planet it has been nothing more than airborne plant food?  Three words—“the greenhouse effect.”  In spite of what one might hear, “the greenhouse effect” is a highly controversial, scientific hypothesis that asserts that carbon dioxide, along with other “greenhouse gases,” is the Earth’s thermostat.  That is, humanity can control the temperature of the Earth by controlling the amount of carbon dioxide that it puts into the air mostly through the burning of “fossil” fuels, i.e., coal, natural gas, and oil.  Here are some scientists who contest that hypothesis (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18,19).  Read what they have to say and make up your own mind. 

      Apart from the highly controversial notion that carbon dioxide has the power to regulate the Earth’s temperature, what is it?  In one word “food”—food for plants, which becomes food for animals, including human beings.  Carbon dioxide is food because carbon is one of the essential building blocks of organic life (Organic – “Belonging to a family of compounds characterized by chains or rings of carbon atoms.”[20]) and most life on earth is organic life.  Also, plants thrive in a carbon dioxide rich environment and along with water, nitrogen from the air and minerals from the soil, powered by sunlight, through the process of photosynthesis make food for animals to eat and oxygen for animals to breathe.  Did you know that gardeners actually pump up to four times the current atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide into greenhouses to promote plant growth?  So, even at current emission levels from the use of fossil fuels the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not reach a level for optimal plant growth for at least 200 years and CO2 levels will not become toxic until well into the next ice age >10,000 years from now.  That is, of course, if the Earth’s natural processes of limiting atmospheric carbon dioxide levels cease to operate.  You see, since carbon dioxide is constantly being cycled through the natural “carbon cycle” much of the carbon dioxide that humanity has produced since the beginning of the industrial revolution has already been removed from the atmosphere.  In fact only 4% of the carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere is from the burning of fossil fuels. (21) So, if carbon dioxide is, indeed, a pollutant then the Earth is polluting itself since 96% of the air’s carbon dioxide content has come from natural sources.

      Beyond these points, global warming is a good thing that promotes life, e.g., human civilizations have always fared better during warm periods in history than during cold periods; more people die from cold every year than from heat; many plants die or go dormant in the winter and come to life in the spring and summer; the warm equator is teeming with life while the cold poles have sparse life. 

      The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change produced the following video in time-lapse photography, which shows the profoundly positive effect that increased levels of carbon dioxide has on the growth of plants: http://www.co2science.org/education/truthalerts/v13/cowpea.php I have verified this effect experimentally in my own home. http://myweb.cableone.net/carlallen/Greenhouse_Effect_Research/CO2%20Enrichment%20Experiment.html

      Since fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide as a by-product, which promotes plant growth, they are, in reality, the only truly “green” source of energy that human beings use at the present time.  Replacing gasoline with ethanol will therefore not only reduce the amount of food that is available for humans; it will also reduce the amount of food that is available for plants.  That is, food that is turned into ethanol is not be available for human consumption and if ethanol does, in fact, reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air then there will be less food available for plant consumption.  Wouldn’t it therefore be wise to rethink this policy and practice?


(1) From research performed at Cornell University http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug01/corn-basedethanol.hrs.html

(2) One pound of corn = 480 calories – http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_calories_in_one_pound_of_corn

(3) “United Nations UN recommends 2350 calories per day.”  http://wilderdom.com/games/descriptions/WorldMeal.html

(4)  Yearly U.S. Ethanol Production 2009 – http://www.biofuelsjournal.com/info/bf_articles.html?type=ec&;ID=25474

(5) http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/stats_graphs.htm

(6) “The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) requires use of 36 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuels in the U.S. by 2022. Of that quantity, 16 billion gallons must be cellulosic biofuels. Ethanol from corn is capped at 15 billion gallons.”   http://www.energy.gov/news/archives/documents/Myths_and_Facts.pdf ibid.

(7) “. . . each gallon of ethanol produced from corn today delivers one third or more energy than is used to produce it.”    US Department of Energy


(8) See: Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, 549 U.S. 497 (2007)

(9) From research performed at Cornell University http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug01/corn-basedethanol.hrs.html

(10) US Department of Energy 2007, “Biofuels in the U.S. Transportation Sector,” http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/analysispaper/biomass.html

(11) O. Port, “Not Your Father’s Ethanol,” Business Week (February 21, 2005), web site www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_08/b3921117.htm

(12) O’Neal, Michael, “Scientists seek cheap, plentiful energy alternatives,” October 13, 2006  http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0610130128oct13,0,2156857.story

(13) T.J Blom, W.A. Straver, F.J. Ingratta, Shalin Khosla – Factsheet Carbon Dioxide in Greenhouses – Order No. 94-077, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

(14) C. D. Idso and K. E. Idso, Carbon Dioxide and Global Warming, Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change

(15) Clark, R., A Null Hypothesis For CO2, EPA submission, Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2009-0171 6/17/09

(16) Richard S. Lindzen and Yong-Sang Choi, On the determination of climate feedbacks from ERBE data Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Revised on July 14, 2009 for publication to Geophysical Research Letters  “The observed behavior of radiation fluxes implies negative feedback processes associated with relatively low climate sensitivity.  This is the opposite of the behavior of 11 atmospheric models forced by the same SSTs.”

(17) Evans, David Dr., The Missing Hotspot, 21 July 2008, Last major revision 22 Mar 2009, Last minor revision 18 Sept 2010,

Web address: http://sciencespeak.com/MissingSignature.pdf

(18) Gerhard Gerlich and Ralf D. Tscheuschner,  “Falsification Of The Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects Within The Frame Of Physics,” International Journal of Modern Physics B, Vol. 23, No. 3 (30 January 2009), 275-364

(19) John O’Sullivan, Hans Schreuder, Claes Johnson, and Alan Siddons Slaying the Sky Dragon – Death of the Greenhouse Gas Theory, Jan 18, 2011, Stairway Press, 1500A East College Way #554 Mount Vernon, WA 98273, ISBN 978 0 9827734 0 6

(20) Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation

(21) “Man’s contribution to atmospheric CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels is small, maximum 4% found by carbon isotope mass balance calculations.”  Segalstad, T. V. 1996: The distribution of CO2 between atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere; minimal influence from anthropogenic CO2 on the global “Greenhouse Effect”. In Emsley, J. (Ed.): The Global Warming Debate. The Report of the European Science and Environment Forum. Bourne Press Ltd., Bournemouth, Dorset, U.K. (ISBN 0952773406), pp. 41-50.