United States Corn Ethanol to Threaten Global Food Secutiy

Matt Schneider
December 13, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2012

Introduction on Ethanol and Food Security

Fig. 1: This figure shows the amount energy within the Transportation sector. [4] (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy)

Ethanol production within the United States in the past 40 years has grown from only roughly a few million gallons to over 1.7 billion gallons in 2009 due to national energy security concerns, new Federal gasoline standards, and government incentives. With present debate around whether or not corn ethanol is an energy efficient process, the United States Department of Agriculture still considers corn production to be an energy efficient process with a yield of roughly 34% more energy. [1] As corn ethanol is gaining popularity as a potential gateway for America to reduce its demand for overseas energy, it will also be threatening world food security. The increase in demand for corn ethanol directly caused by Federal gasoline standards and government incentives causes an upward pressure on world food prices. Therefore as corn becomes demanded more for ethanol production in the United States, it will cause the price of corn within the United States to increase. Currently countries such as Guatemala, Malawi, and Tanzania, which are all countries with high rates of malnutrition, rely on maize for a large proportion of their daily dietary calories. [2] With the United States being the largest producer and supplier of corn world wide, an increase in the price of United States corn due to ethanol production may increase malnutrition in countries that rely on United States corn as a major source of dietary calories.

A Few Calculations

This past year about 27 quadrillion (1015) BTU, roughly 27% of the total energy used within the United States, was used by the transportation sector. [3] Now lets assume the United States wanted 25% of all transportation energy to come from corn ethanol.

0.25 × 2.7 × 1016 BTU
5.18 × 104 BTU/gal
= 1.30 × 1011 gallons of corn ethanol

1.30 × 1011 gal ethanol
2.66 gal ethanol/bushel corn
= 4.90 × 1010 bushels of corn

Therefore it is clear that in order for the United State to produce 25% of their transportation energy, which is only 27% of their total energy requirement, they would require 49 billion bushels of corn. To put this number into perspective, the US only produced approximately 12 billion bushels of corn in 2011, and is expected to produce approximately 10.5 billion bushels of corn in 2012. [3] In other words, if the United States were to produce a significant amount of their energy from corn ethanol, they would need to increase their corn production by four times. In reality increasing corn production to these levels solely for ethanol production is not feasible, and corn ethanol will never be able to offset more than a mere fraction of the total energy used within the United States.


Currently policy makers within the United States see the expansion of corn ethanol as a way of increasing farm income and reducing farm program payments, while helping the U.S. economy decrease its dependence on imported oil. [1] Yet, will corn ethanol even help the US economy decrease its dependence on imported oil? It is clear that unless corn yields drastically increase, corn ethanol will never be able to even offset 25% of the United States energy required for Transportation. In other words, from my above calculations it can be concluded that corn ethanol will never be able to offset roughly 6.75% of the United States Energy Requirement. In fact if corn ethanol was to offset 6.75% of the United States Energy, corn production in the United States would have to increase by a factor of four.

It appears that the United States vision to decrease dependence on imported oil through the use of corn ethanol is unpractical, and will ultimately lead to food security issues around the globe. As one of the largest suppliers of corn globally, the United States increase in corn prices due to corn ethanol will cause more malnutrition in areas that rely on American corn for a major source of calories. With little ability to help America decrease its dependence on imported oil, and with concerns around the energy efficiency of corn ethanol, it seems impractical for the United States policy makers to threaten global food security for corn ethanol when it will have negligible impact on the total energy requirement for the United States.

© 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] H. Shapouri, J. A. Duffield and M. Wang, "The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update," U.S. Department of Agriculture, AER-814, July 2002.

[2] R. L. Naylor , "The Ripple Effect: Biofuels, Food Security, and the Environment," Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 49, No. 9, 30 (2007).

[3] "Crop Production," US Department of Agriculture, December 2012.

[4] "Annual Energy Review 2011," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0384(2011), September 2012, p. 37.