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The Great Ethanol Corndoggle

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Energy balance is the ratio between energy inputs to produce a product, and the energy available in the product. Gasoline has an energy balance of 5-to-1 (not counting the gruesome, hidden costs in gasoline) (3). Brazilian ethanol has an excellent energy balance of 8-to-1, eight times more energy contained than it took to grow and process the feedstock, sugar cane. Unfortunately, sugar cane is a tropical-only crop that displaces one of the most precious links in Earth’s biosphere, tropical rainforests. Corn ethanol, in the most generous analysis, has an energy balance of 1.3-to-1. The only way corn ethanol gets tweaked from a negative energy balance is by factoring in animal feed by-products, which are poor at best.

Cellulosic ethanol is the energy source to readily answer the ethanol hype. Cellulose is the basic component of plant matter, easily convertible to sugar, then alcohol. Research showing promise includes wood waste as feedstock, as well as a number of grasses including switchgrass, elephant grass, fescues, reed canary grass, rye—just about every super producer of cellulose...except the best, cannabis hemp.

The main thing about hemp, besides its U.S. ban of 70 years and counting, is in addition to biomass fuel, hemp offers a stunning array of products including food, fiber, plastics, medicines...(see the five-part King Hemp series for much about The King). (4)

In Canada, industrial hemp has become the most profitable crop farmers grow, paying $200 to $300 per acre. Just across the border, in North Dakota, farmers realized $10 to $40 profits per acre growing corn in 2007. Soybeans paid about $12 to $47 per acre.

Worldwide acreage of hemp is now increasing every year, driven in large part by U.S. demand. In 2005, hemp acreage in Canada tripled, in 2006 it doubled, 2007 saw demand exceed supply , and 2008 will further the expansion.  

If wisdom graces America with a return to hemp farming, we might kill the ethanol corndoggle. We can grow corn for food, and let high-powered energy crops like hemp fuel a healthy and home-grown new energy paradigm for America. The ultimate challenge is entrenched energy politics so perfectly characterized by ADM, and all the other opponents of history’s most valuable crop, hemp. This is one case where we stand to benefit tremendously if history repeats—like starting about the time of the American Revolution.
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Rand Clifford lives in Spokane, Washington. His novels and earlier essays can be found at http://www.starchiefpress.com/

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