Corn Subsidies and Biofuels

Matt Schneider
December 4, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2012

Background on Government Funding

Fig. 1: Corn Usage in the United States. [5] (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

It was not until 1933 that the United States passed a bill that is commonly known as the farm bill. The last farm bill, in effect from 2008 to 2012, authorized the government to spend 290 billion dollars on agricultural support. While it would seem that the majority of this money would support family farms and sustainable agriculture, the truth is that 10% of the recipients of these subsidies collected 74% of the money. [1] Also, of the subsidized crops, five of them receive around 90% of the money - corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. Corn, which receives the highest amount of crop funding, received 8.9 billion dollars in the year 2005. [2] In 2010 approximately 45% of all corn produced within the U.S was used as livestock feed and about 28% was used for ethanol production. [3]

Corn Used for Livestock Feed

The livestock industry is the largest user of corn within the United States because the farm bill subsidies enable corn feed to be very cheap. This cheap source of food ultimately drives down the cost of meat, which allows people to purchase hamburgers for under a dollar. Yet it is often ignored that supplying the livestock industry with cheap feed, actually leads to increased energy use in order to produce enough food to go around. The production of beef uses nearly 40 kcal of fossil fuels for 1 kcal of cow protein, whereas the production of 1kcal of plant protein only requires a mere 2.2 kcal of fossil fuel energy. [4] Also, the production of 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than the production of 1kg of grain protein. [4] As fossil fuel prices continue to increase, and there becomes an increasing worry about the availability of fresh water with global climate change, less meat consumption is desirable. Also The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out that we are currently producing an excess of 56g of protein beyond the daily recommendation per American. [4]

Corn Used for Ethanol

Ethanol, which is commonly referred to as the environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel, is the second largest consumer of corn within the United States. There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not Ethanol is actually an efficient process, meaning it produces more energy than it requires.

So, therefore 50 gallons of fossil fuel are equivalent to approximately 442.8 gallons of Ethanol per acre of corn. [1] Debate arises when looking into the amount of fossil fuels required to extract ethanol fuel from corn, the amount of fossil fuels required to transport Ethanol, the amount of energy used to apply pesticides and fertilizers to the corn, and the costs of environmental damage caused by this entire process. Therefore, it seems as if more concrete research is needed to know whether or not ethanol production is actually an efficient process within the United States. Whether or not the production of ethanol proves to truly be an energy efficient process, does not take away from the environmental degradation caused by large-scale monocrop agriculture. Scaling ethanol productions to the levels required to help offset the United States dependence on fossil fuels would ultimately lead to more monoculture farms which lead to biodiversity loss, problems with erosion, eutrophication, and numerous other environmental issues. .


The government allocates billions of dollars every year towards subsidizing corn production, and the two largest uses of corn are livestock feed and ethanol production. Supplying the livestock industry with cheap feed ultimately leads to an American diet that is heavily based on the consumption of meat, which is far more energy intensive and resource dependent than its alternative. Meat based diets also have been found to lead to health problems such as obesity within the United States. Corn subsidies also increase the production of ethanol, a fuel source that may be no better than fossil fuels due to the required energy inputs and the environmental damage caused by its production. .

© Matt Schneider. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Harwood, "United States Farm Bill - An Antiquated Policy?" U. of Detroit Mercy Law Review 88, 377 (2010).

[2] C. F. Runge and B. Senauer, "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor," Foreign Affairs 86, No. 3, 41 (May/June 2007).

[3] "2011 World of Corn," National Corn Growers Association, 2011.

[4] D. Pimentel, "Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment," Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 78, 6608 (2003).

[5] "USDA Agricultural Projections to 2021," U.S. Department of Agriculture, OCE-2012-1, February 2012.