No ethanol doesn’t mean no profit

Ethanol sign
Ethanol sign (Farm and Dairy file photo)

It’s rare to find one Midwestern academic publicly questioning the economic and environmental impacts of ethanol. It’s even rarer to find four academics — one from a corn state land grant university, three from a leading university in the leading corn-producing state — raising objections to the biofuel and its byproducts that will use one out of every three bushels of corn grown in the U.S. this year.

But that’s exactly what the co-hosts of the Iowa-based podcast, “We All Want Clean Water,” offered in the first episode of their second season. It was a 47-minute seminar on how best to put the most sacred of American ag policy cows out to pasture.

And it featured several “cropaganda” moments, a clever invention of the podcast’s three co-hosts — Silvia Secchi, a University of Iowa professor of geographical and sustainability studies; Iowa colleague Christopher Jones, a research engineer and expert on Iowa water quality; and David Cwiertny, director of UI’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination.

According to the three, cropaganda marries old-fashioned farm mythmaking to modern farm advocacy in Big Ag’s effort to maintain the status quo. Its chief goal is to beat down any fact or idea that threatens today’s dominant ag policies.

Most of the podcast’s myth-made moments were provided by Jason Hill, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, who has examined ethanol since 2005. His “systems” assessment of ethanol, a “big picture” of how science now views it, is that “ethanol is not the direction we should be going.”

Sustainable future

In fact, Hill notes, a “more sustainable transportation future” would feature “better options that give us greater benefits at less cost … (and) get us closer to a more sustainable transportation future.”

For example, Hill told the three UI professors, if Congress raised the required fuel standard nationwide by a miniscule one-half mile per gallon, the environmental benefit delivered by the tiny boost would offset any environmental benefit from ethanol from “all the corn we produce in Iowa today.”

That “just blows my mind,” remarked podcast co-host Cwiertny, “because that’s an achievable standard in terms of fuel efficiency. Instead we’ve chosen to completely re-engineer our landscape here” for corn and ethanol.

And even more ethanol-driven landscape reengineering is now in the works across the Midwest. Highly controversial carbon pipelines, backed by biofuel oligarchs like Archer Daniels Midland and Iowa political kingmaker Bruce Rastetter, will re-energize two “very much aligned” industries, ethanol and petroleum, says Hill.

Fuel markets

The global fuel market, however, is rushing away from “liquid fuels” like gasoline and ethanol and toward either less liquid fuel or non-liquid fuels like electricity. By itself, that realignment will change today’s transportation system dramatically and quickly, suggests Hill.

The question then won’t be what fuel will we use, he reckons; instead, it will be “How are we going to get people from Point A to Point B safely because there will be many more ways to accomplish that” other than with today’s fuels.

That will have severe consequences for ethanol, he continues. “Today, we use all the land dedicated to corn production in both Minnesota and Iowa combined for ethanol… and it gets us enough fuel to offset 6-7% of our gasoline… That’s not a lot.”

In fact, if federally mandated miles-per-gallon standards are raised just two more miles per gallon, Hill calculates, all the ethanol-making corn land in production today would be redundant. It simply wouldn’t be needed. That stark reality should push policymakers to begin to move toward the inevitable no-ethanol day.

Other crops

But that’s far easier said than done, noted podcast co-host Jones. Iowa’s corn acres devoted to ethanol alone are equal to 20 of the state’s 99 counties, he said. What are farmers going to do in those counties if ethanol goes away?

They will be paid an estimated $600 to $700 an acre in federal subsidies — today’s “societal cost to grow corn used for ethanol” — to grow other “proven” carbon-friendly crops that “give us the benefit of a renewed ecosystem,” explained Hill. That’s one renewable everyone wants.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.


  1. No corn is grown just for ethanol, it is too uneconomical.

    Rather, corn ethanol is a value-added product of >>>already existing<<< feed production which leaves 100% of the protein (and other things) still available for feed in a healthier, more digestible/efficient, and more concentrated form called distillers grains.

    With this feed factor, ethanol can outcompete any other source out there including sugarcane which makes more ethanol per acre but little else.

    Most studies negative on corn ethanol assign all/most energy or CO2 to the ethanol side and little/none to the feed side of corn when in reality it should be the other way around. Why? Because if we outlawed ethanol with another Prohibition, we would still grow the same amount of corn we always do and always have. Cattle feeders need plant protein to make animal protein so if their distiller grains were ended, they would have to find an alternative protein source and that would likely have to be switching back to feeding less concentrated straight corn. During Covid when ethanol plants shut down, cattle feeders using distillers grains were facing this very scenario.

    Believe it or not, the corn belt grew more corn acres in 1980 before ethanol than they do today with record ethanol production and ethanol plants everywhere.

    2018 Iowa 13,200,000 acres of corn with most ethanol production ever
    1980 Iowa 14,000,000 acres of corn before ethanol

    2018 Illinois 11,000,000 acres of corn with most ethanol production ever
    1980 Illinois 11,600,000 acres of corn before ethanol

    2018 Indiana 5,350,000 acres of corn with most ethanol production ever
    1980 Indiana 6,450,000 acres of corn before ethanol

  2. So, it seems to these experts that ethanol is not the problem, but that they don’t like so many acres going to corn production. The article should make this clear. There are many other ways to make ethanol which is clearly a cleaner-burning fuel which, when made from plant parts like straw, corn stover, perennial grasses, even the biomass from hemp/medical marijuana plants that only use the buds for commercial products. Some of these feedstocks need more R&D funding, and that’s what these experts should be emphasizing. Don’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You can find out more about these alternatives from, a nonprofit educational organization.


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