MARQUETTE - Some areas of the United States may feel it more than others, but the cost of food at dinner tables across the nation has increased. According to Barry Solomon, professor of environmental policy at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, some experts blame the nation's shift to producing fuel from renewable resources, such as corn-based ethanol, for the rising prices. "This is really a debate," Solomon said. "There are a lot of critics that say the ethanol production industry is at fault." Corn - used in foods from breads to potato chips - cost $6 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade in early April, its highest price ever, according to The Associated Press. Ethanol is a renewable fuel primarily made from starch crops like corn. According to federal statistics, nearly one-third of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol in a low-level blend aimed at cutting air pollution. Ethanol producers, on the other hand, say that the increase in corn-based ethanol production has no or little effect on rising food prices. "Personally, I think the answer is somewhere in between," Solomon said. "I believe the increasing demand for ethanol is having some effect on the price of corn and food, but I think it's comparatively minor, especially compared to the increasing prices of petroleum." He explained that the more significant factor in rising food prices is the cost of transporting products due to high gasoline prices. Solomon said nobody likes to see prices go up, but that it is difficult to attribute the high prices to just one factor. "They all have an effect," he said. Solomon said in the last five years the production of ethanol in the United States has tripled, and the ethanol industry relies heavily on corn. Some 20 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. now goes to ethanol production. Roughly 55 percent of the total corn production goes to animal feed and less than 15 percent is for human consumption, Solomon said. The increased ethanol production goes back to a 2005 federal energy act mandating a minimum amount of renewable content in vehicle fuel. In 2007, a new energy law passed, calling for ethanol production - from corn, switchgrass and wood chips - to increase to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022, according to the AP. Although this is a good move away from the nation's dependency on fossil fuels, there are some problems with the production of corn-based ethanol, according to Solomon. "Farming for corn is very energy intensive," he said. "It creates environmental problems on the production side but using it in cars - there are problems too." For example, Solomon said, ethanol-gasoline blends could lead to cold-starting problems, and blends with 20 percent ethanol may result in corrosion, deterioration and breakdown of metal components, rubber and cork gaskets in the vehicle. "The better option is to convert to make ethanol from waste residues," Solomon said. One alternative, cellulosic ethanol, has been under research for a long time. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, this type of ethanol is made from the green plant matter cellulose. "Cellulose and hemicellulose are polymers - long chains of individual molecules. These individual molecular chain links are sugars. With appropriate technology, polymers can be broken into their component sugars and fermented to produce 'cellulosic ethanol.'" Solomon added that all plants contain cellulose so the potential sources of cellulosic ethanol are much larger. Yet a practical process for converting plant materials to ethanol has not been simple to find. "You have to pretreat it and separate the material," Solomon said, adding that that involves a higher capital investment cost. "That's been the holdup."
Barry Solomon, professor of environmental policy at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, says critics blame the producers of corn-based ethanol for rising food prices. (Barry Solomon photo)