Food For Gas

The debate rages on

It took Sen. Ted Cruz to finally persuade me to answer a riddle that's bothered me for years. Suppose somebody yanked away the law that currently props up the nation's ethanol industry, as Cruz has proposed. What would actually happen?

Before we get to the answer, let me mention why it's important, and why I'm writing about it here in The Salt. The gasoline that fuels your car is actually 10 percent ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, and that fact has had a profound impact on America's farming landscape. As ethanol use increased over the past 15 years, dozens of giant distilleries — known, more respectably, as ethanol plants — appeared in the country's corn belt. Feeding those distilleries is now a full-time job for roughly 35 million acres, or 55,000 square miles, of corn fields. Offhand, I can't think of a single agricultural product that exceeds the scale of ethanol.

Corn farmers love the ethanol boom, the way any manufacturer loves a big customer. Many environmentalists, on the other hand, despise it. Ethanol is often called a renewable fuel, because you can grow that corn year after year, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air in the process. But growing all that corn for fuel also means more soil erosion, more water pollution, and it can even force the clearing of more land to grow things that people actually eat.

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