Defending their corn: meatpackers, soft drink makers and food companies go after ethanol

The ethanol boom is inspiring some surprising behavior in the food and farming community. Philip Brasher, the Des Moines Register’s Washington Correspondent, wrote about pushback from the food and drink industry over ethanol in Thursday’s newspaper. The article illustrates how the ethanol boom is leading to some hypocritical demands and Machiavellian strategies.

Let’s start with makers of soft drinks. Brasher writes:

Coca-Cola, which relies on corn syrup to sweeten its soft drinks, has joined chief competitor PepsiCo Inc., food companies like Kellogg Co., and groups representing meatpackers and livestock producers in raising alarms about a Senate energy bill that would require the usage of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. Current law requires motorists to use 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012, a target that will be surpassed in coming months as dozens of new ethanol plants come on line.

It seems to me that Mr. Brasher forgot to finish the first clause in the first sentence. The clause “Coca-Cola, which relies on corn syrup to sweeten its soft drinks,” should have followed with “at absurdly low prices, enabling servings to steadily increase in size while prices never seem to increase.” It’s true that today’s Coca-Cola (in the U.S., anyway) relies on corn syrup, but somehow Coca-Cola managed to take over the world in the 20th century using beet and cane sugar to make their signature drink. I imagine that Coca-Cola could retool their American factories to use sugar and that American consumers could manage to downsize their Cokes from 20 or 32 ounces to a still-generous 12 or 16 ounces if production prices rose because of the switch. Since corn syrup became the basis for soft drinks in the 1980s, per capita intake of sweeteners has increased by about 20%, to almost 150 pounds per year per person (source: USDA, via, with most of that increase from corn syrup.

Pot, meet kettle

The next paragraph lays out two of the Coalition of the Illing’s arguments against the ethanol mandates:

The soda companies, food makers and livestock groups warn that the Senate mandate could increase “soil erosion, water pollution and habitat destruction,” according to a recent letter to Senate leaders. The groups say consumers already are paying more for food because of biofuel production.

Well, if there is one thing that livestock groups know about, it’s water pollution and habitat destruction. Take pork producer Smithfield, for example. “In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act — the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to 0.035 percent of Smithfield’s annual sales,” according to a feature article in Rolling Stone.

Manure lagoon

A 1998 report from the EPA (PDF) observes that animal manure is much more abundant in the U.S. than the human kind — 133 million dry tons of animal manure versus 10 million dry tons of human sanitary waste were produced in 1992. And yet while municipalities are highly regulated about the disposal of human waste, animal waste disposal regulations are still positively medieval. And the meat industry is currently fighting to prevent Superfund designation of their oceans of manure.

It’s all about cheap corn

The environmental problems resulting from industrial corn production (like the dead zone at the outlet of the Mississippi River) should be familiar to the soda, food, and livestock coalition. After all, they used over 50% of the corn grown in the U.S. between 2001 and 2005, according to the USDA’s Feed Grains Database Yearbook (Tables 4 and 31). It’s safe to say that cheap corn made them what they are today. Cheap corn made it possible for the meat industry to build enormous cattle feedlots and hog confinement buildings, each facility creating tons of manure per day.

These industries are correct in thinking that more corn will lead to more environmental problems, but I don’t think they are trying to hold back ethanol to prevent those problems. They are trying to preserve their supply of artificially cheap corn.

For the record, I think the rush to corn-based ethanol is insane — it requires too much energy input, places too much stress on the land, and is not being accompanied by an equal push for transportation efficiency improvements (e.g., CAFE). Challenging mandates like the biofuels target set by Congress can be strong drivers of technical innovation — the Clean Air Act of 1970 being a prime example — so where are the challenging mandates for engine efficiency, mass transit improvements, or urban design?

Photo credit: Aerial photo of North Carolina hog-farm manure lagoon from Google Earth

3 Responsesto “Defending their corn: meatpackers, soft drink makers and food companies go after ethanol”

  1. AltFuel Fan says:

    The arguments for corn ethanol and the arguments against it… Soon, I think it may become a game of finger pointing, not that our environment is a game or should be handled like a childrens toy. Alternative fuels are the best bet when it comes to breaking the dependence on Middle East Fossil Fuel. Cellulosic ethanol has a better chance and is cheaper than corn ethanol; an article on this blog has a couple different views on ethanol and what it is doing to our world price for food.

  2. donna says:

    Engine efficiency, mass transit and better urban design? Cmon, who is going to get rich off those things?

    No, the ethanol craze is just yet another farm subsidy excuse.

  3. donna –
    I can sympathize with your comment, but believe that there is plenty of money to be made in efficiency improvements and better urban design. However, it’s not easy money–it requires changes in how government gives out funds, the current power structure, and might inconvenience the public. In the case of urban design, the money would be diffusely spent through countless windows and miles of light rail track.

    Here are some transportation sectors that could capture significant earnings from improvements in efficiency: auxiliary power units for trucks (so that the driver can have AC or heat while resting without needing to run the engine), fuel cells for cars and trucks, low-rolling resistance tires, aerodynamic equipment for trucks, advanced materials for car and truck bodies, more efficient air conditioners. It is conceivable that big corporations like GE or GM could create profit centers out of these sectors.

    And for urban design: design and construction of light rail systems, building buses, manufacturing super-efficient windows, installing windows, manufacturing solar panels (and installing them), performing energy audits, converting unsuccessful shopping centers into mixed-use.

    Ethanol annoys a few big interest groups, like the food industry and the oil industry, but for the most part it is an easy choice for politicians. American farmers know how to grow corn, the market knows how to buy and sell corn, and making ethanol is a straightforward process. One tricky part that has received little attention, however, is getting the ethanol into the fuel system. Big Oil is understandably reluctant to offer 85% ethanol blends at their gas stations.

    The cost of ethanol to consumers is hard to spot because it is like death by a thousand cuts. Pay a few cents more for chicken or pork, perhaps a few cents more for vehicle fuel with 10% ethanol. But when the consumer buys new windows, new tires, or a new hybrid car, the bill is hard to ignore.


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