Iowa's 'Singularity,' AKA ethanol senselessness

A "singularity" is a mathematical term for a situation where all known laws break down, and nothing makes sense. Physicists often use this term to describe the first fractions of the first second of the universe’s Big Bang origin, when even time didn’t really exist.

It occurred to me recently that here in Iowa, we have our own singularity. It’s called Ethanol. A state of senselessness, where all laws break down and math and science and even logic cease to exist.

I’ve written about (some would say railed about) ethanol many times. Why? Because corn ethanol for fuel is stupid. The industry exists by virtue of one reason and one reason only: government policy. The environmental benefits of using corn to produce a liquid biofuel HAVE ALWAYS been more desperation-half-court-heave than slam dunk, it’s lower potential energy when compared to gasoline makes the 10% blend number an obvious head fake, and its dominance of American politics has kept higher energy players sitting at the end of the bench. So why does ethanol get its ticket punched to the Big Dance year after year after year?

Politics. Liberal politicians from Joe Biden to Amy Klobuchar to Dick Durbin to Sherrod Brown to Cindy Axne to the Iowa City dogcatcher provide all the cover Republicans in general and Iowa Democratic state legislators in particular need to continue force feeding us this rancid cod liver oil until kingdom come.

Liquid biofuel volumes required by the Renewable Fuel Standard. The cellulosic requirements have never been met and EPA has waived them every year. Source: Department of Energy

How did this two-bit, two-carbon alcohol get enshrined as Iowa’s golden calf? A generation ago, GMO seeds and a favorable climate continued to increase corn yields, and by god, nature truly does abhor a vacuum and something had to step in to gobble up all that junk organic carbon laying around, otherwise known as #2 Dent. Enter the Energy Policy Act of 2005, also known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) or if you're an Iowan, the 11th Commandment, that required blending of biofuels with gasoline. Grain-derived ethanol was to be a bridge fuel until cellulosic (ethanol made from leaves, stalks etc.) took over, but cellulosic flopped and is now riding the bench for the ANF’s Sandhill Cranes D league team in Middleofnowhere, Nebraska.

Liquid biofuel volumes required by the Renewable Fuel Standard. The cellulosic requirements have never been met and EPA has waived them every year. Source: Department of Energy
So here we are, 2022, the RFS about to expire, EV cars coming, the world in dire need of wheat, and politicians are still tripping over each other to prop up corn ethanol so the panicked Ethanolians can build carbon pipelines that will pump more insanity from the ethanol plants out to the hinterlands, because……?

I have a theory.

In his book "Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind," Yuval Noah Harari explains that our species, "Homo sapiens," once shared the earth with other Homo species: "Homo neanderthalensis," "Homo erectus," "Homo rudolfensis," and "Homo denisova." We coexisted with them all for thousands of years until we decided we wanted the neighborhood to ourselves and exterminated these other guys. What helped this along was the development of complex language in Homo sapiens. It seems that primate social structures start to break down at about 150 individuals. Language helps individuals of larger groups of our species bond and form alliances and complex social structures, and do stuff like wipe out competing species if we feel like it. We form these social structures by creating stories for members of the tribe to coalesce around—occasionally these are based on reality, but quite often they are not. Harari says that “the ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively.” And, as time goes by, the imagined reality becomes ever more powerful.

We see this everywhere in modern society, despite empirical evidence discrediting the story in plain sight. COVID is a bad cold. Trump won the election. Vaccines cause autism. School kids are relieving themselves in kitty litter. The culture of agriculture is no exception. Feeding the World. Regulation Can’t Work. Ethanol—YEAH BABY (Barry White voice). One can imagine a few rich guys sitting around a bottle of Glenlivet about 20 years ago saying what in the X?!% are we going to do with all this corn? We gotta keep selling fertilizer and seed and machinery and we need someplace for this junk to go.

Voila, the ethanol myth story is born.

Like all myth stories, the legend of corn ethanol has been as pliant and silly as silly putty, depending on the year and world affairs: reduces carbon monoxide emissions in cold weather, works on stains, relieves dependence on foreign oil, cures the heartbreak of psoriasis, reduces overall cost of fuel, solves toenail fungus, increases octane, regrows amputated limbs, and now — mitigates climate change.

Like many of the ancient myths, our corn ethanol myth sometimes makes use of phallic imagery. It's ironic that our legislature is now obsessing about 'groomers' while all this time we've been towing corn penises through town on the 4th of July. Thanks to Dave Swenson for bringing this one to my attention.

It’s given our state a reason to live and entrenched our caucus as the first. On cold winter nights, presidential candidates can be seen knocking back shots of Everclear at every Gus and Betty’s Good Times Tavern from Lineville to Scarville and Centerville to Correctionville, all so they can bear homage to our myth story and declare themselves true believers and members of the tribe.

The 97 percent of us that don’t farm are forced to pledge our allegiance to the 3 percenter’s myth story, even though it has had dire environmental consequences here and downstream from us. Challenging this dogma means you're divisive, you hate Iowa, you hate farmers, and you hate agriculture, because you don't believe the myth. You're an infidel. The zealots become whatabouters and get in your face with whatabout the byproducts (dried digester grains, mainly), whatabout big oil, whatabout the jobs (probably 7000 at best, 0.6 jobs per square mile of land investment, according ISU economist Swenson), and whatabout Uncle Harold and that new Airstream he was about to buy.

I’m proposing a new story, one built on empiricism: you can’t achieve the state’s environmental objectives until ethanol is killed and left for dead. And why not kill it? It parks its fat ass on an area equivalent to 20 Iowa counties, making millionaires out of a few while preventing food production on some of the best soil on earth.

What else could we do with that 11,000 square miles (7 million acres), you might ask? Let me think for a minute. (Opens up excel spreadsheet)

  • 1.1 million acres: grow enough dried beans for every person in the United States
  • 360,000 acres: grow enough potatoes for every person in the United States
  • 220,000 acres: grow enough apples for every person in the United States
  • 150,000 acres: grow enough canned sweet corn for every person in the United States
  • 140,000 acres: grow enough onions for every person in the United States
  • 37,000 acres: grow enough cherries for every person in the United States
  • 26,000 acres: grow enough walnuts for every person in the United States

So right now I’m at a little over 2 million acres, and I think you probably get the picture. And there's still 5 million acres left.

So, for all the whatabouters reading, this is for you: Yes, I know the infrastructure doesn’t currently exist to support these other production systems. Yes, I know there are some environmental consequences for growing some of these other crops, especially potatoes. Yes, I know farmers would have to buy different machinery. Yes, I know growing field corn is likely more profitable. But let’s ask the question — why is it more profitable? Hmm. Could it be because THE RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARD GUARANTEES A MARKET AND A PRICE FOR A MONSTROUS CORN CROP?!? And, it surely inflates the value of our land, preventing aspiring farmers from getting a start, at least some of which would like do something other than grow junk corn for a gutter fuel.

And I say to the whatabouters, we spend MILLIONS of taxpayer dollars putting band aids on the corn-soy system to try to get it to stop polluting, and to what benefit for the 97 percent of Iowans that don’t farm? Could we not spend some of that to underwrite alternative crop production that would produce better environmental outcomes than the band aids, and provide us some actual food in the deal? Why do we mindlessly cling to a 17-year-old policy that’s far beyond it’s ‘use by’ date?

Iowa has the good fortune to be the best place on earth to growth stuff, including annual crops. Growing corn for ethanol is lazy and betrays a complete lack of vision by Iowa’s agricultural establishment.

Why are we wasting this place on ethanol? It makes no sense, other than to fulfill the prophesy of the Ethanolians’ myth story: ethanol today, ethanol tomorrow, ethanol forever! And don't forget to drop your envelope in the collection plate before you go.

IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, University of Iowa

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