What's wrong with corn ethanol?

We grow a lot of corn in the United States, much of which never sees the inside of a human stomach. In fact, in 2010, something like a quarter of all the corn grown in this country went to ethanol production. That's a massive amount of corn grown for gas tanks. And it's a problem.

The process of growing corn is tremendously energy intensive, and it has some far-reaching drawbacks that threaten the future of vital farmlands in the Midwest. Corn crops provide steady, reliable income for farmers. But the risks likely outweigh those benefits, at least at the quantities in which we now grow corn.

In the spring of 2009, I experienced some of those risks first hand. At Smithsonian.com, you can read a excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about the future of energy. The excerpt is about Madelia, Minnesota, a small town where local farming advocates are trying to promote a more sustainable cropping system, and a better way to grow biofuels—one that provides incentives for farmers to grow less corn, not more.

In the course of reporting that story, I ran into a dust storm—a phenomenon that is related to the way corn grows and what we have to do to the soil to keep producing massive corn crops year after year.

The wind had started the day full of bluster, and it was positively furious by the afternoon, while the open, empty fields that flanked the highway offered nothing to slow the wind down. This alone wouldn’t have been a big problem. I grew up in Kansas, and I know how to steer a car through a windstorm. The issue was what I could see ahead of me—or, rather, what I couldn’t see. Out of nowhere, a gray cloud rose up to hover over the highway, swallowing semi-trucks and digesting them into sets of disembodied tail lights. I had barely enough time to realize I wasn’t looking at fog before I plunged into the thick of it.

The sun disappeared. Gravel pinged against the car windows. I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t artificially lit. In a panic, I turned on my headlamps just as I drove out the other side of the gritty haze, back into a normal, windy spring day. The “cloud” was made of dirt, and a mile or so up the road, another gray ribbon of it stretched across the horizon. I went through three or four of these dust clouds before I reached the exit for Madelia.

Even in town, the dust was not easily vanquished. I parked my car downtown, beneath the prow of a movie theater awning, and stepped out into air so texturized you could almost gnaw on it. Flecks of dust stuck in my sun block. When I opened my mouth, grit came in.

I had traveled to Madelia to meet with Linda Meschke, the woman who had become the driving force behind the Madelia Model, and I’d left my house dressed for the occasion, wearing the tidy business-casual wear of a young reporter. Those dust clouds knocked me down a peg. By the time I’d walked two blocks through downtown Madelia, my skin was turning pink, and my hair was a winded red whirl glued into place under a layer of grime. Meschke didn’t seem to mind my sorry state. Instead, she just nodded slowly and said, “It’s a little windy out here today.”

At that point, I still didn’t quite understand what I had seen. Dust clouds such as this, I knew, were related to soil erosion, but it wasn’t until I talked to Meschke that I was able to connect the dots between the dust in my hair and the goals of the Madelia Model.

Read the full excerpt at Smithsonian.com.

Read my book, Before the Lights Go Out, to learn more about efforts to localize energy generation.

Side note: It takes a very long time to write a book. Much of what you'll read in the excerpt on Smithsonian is the much-polished version of a story that was first written down in the spring of 2009. In fact, Madelia was the subject of the sample chapter that I wrote up for my book proposal—it was the story that helped sell Before the Lights Go Out to a publisher. That's not a particularly important detail to the discussion on energy, but it seems to be something that people ask me about a lot. From the beginning of the book proposal, I've been working on this book in one way or another since January of 2009. Of all offspring, I'm pretty sure books have the longest gestation process.

Relatedly, the image above is one I took out of Linda Meschke's car window on the day you'll read about in the excerpt. This was not the biggest dust cloud I saw that day. Not by a longshot. It was just the most photogenic.