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Check out the following link to listen to Dave Blume on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

August 15, 2008 · Biofuel advocate David Blume talks about common misconceptions about the use of ethanol for fuel, and about his vision for decentralized, community-supported ethanol production in the United States.

Ethanol Power for the People

The following transcript is an interview of David Blume by Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday, broadcast on Friday, August15, 2008 on SF station KQED/88.5 FM.

IRA FLATOW: For the rest of the hour, we’re going to talk about ethanol as a fuel, and food prices rising, food and corn prices. Economists have been pointing out that you can’t have your ethanol and eat it too, so to speak. But my next guest disagrees. He says that if we really do the math, if we really understood how ethanol is made, we should have no trouble meeting demand for both fuel and food. It might just require us to make it differently and make it locally, right there in your hometown. Joining me now is David Blume. He’s the Executive Director of the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture and author of Alcohol Can Be A Gas! That’s published by the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture in Santa Cruz, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID BLUME: Well, I’m glad to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hi. Was I correct in saying we really don’t have to make a choice between food and fuel?

DAVID BLUME: Well, I like how you put it we can have our fuel and eat it too. Yes, it’s actually been quite well known for a long time that when you make alcohol, there’s actually an increase in the food supply versus a decrease. If you look at the way the press has been running nowadays, the common byline is: Twenty percent of the United States corn supply is being diverted to alcohol fuel production, and then a follow-up with dire prognostications about how that would make the price of food go up, and a shortage of food for other people. But it’s just not true. When you look at agriculture in the United States, basically corn is hardly used as a human food at all. Maybe one percent of our corn supply ends up as corn flakes and corn chips, so that’s a human use of food. And then about five percent of our corn starch, not the whole corn, is used for high-fructose corn syrup. Well, I would argue that that’s not food, but someone might disagree. Three percent of the starch goes for industrial uses, things like gunpowder and starching shirts. The rest of the corn pretty much goes for animal feed. Well, with the exception of one percent for whisky, which I might argue is food. So we’re really talking about animal food here. Now, it’s very interesting when you look at the ecology of the cattle that we turn this corn into food for. Cattle are natives of Southern Europe and Northern Africa and were forest dwellers. You take a look at them, you can see they have big wide feet, and what they like to eat is brush. So they’re not actually evolved to eat grains. They’re not grassland animals at all; they’re browsers. So we try to feed corn to cattle. Every vegetarian will tell you the same thing: You have to give nine pounds of corn to make one pound of cow. Well, the nine pounds obviously goes somewhere, and it goes out the “back door.” Most of what goes out is starch, because cattle are not evolved to digest it. So when we feed corn to cattle, we are really wasting most of the corn in order to get the protein and the fat to the cows to fatten them up. When we make alcohol, we don’t touch the protein or fat; we only take out the indigestible starch. So really, when we make alcohol, we’re improving the quality of the animal feed. Cattle actually gain seventeen percent more weight on the byproduct from alcohol fuel production than on the original corn it came from.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying that we take out from the corn the animal feed to feed the animals, and we take the cellulose out to make the alcohol.

DAVID BLUME: Well, we take the starch out to make the alcohol. Animals are actually quite good at turning cellulose into energy, which is kind of surprising, since we, as humans, can’t do much with it. But cattle have four stomachs and great biology to turn cellulose into energy.

IRA FLATOW: And so you’re saying that there’s enough, out of that corn, to both give us the food we need that we feed to cattle, and to make the alcohol that we can use in our cars?

DAVID BLUME: Well, we’re doing it right now. In fact, the alcohol that’s produced in the United States produces this byproduct called “dried distillers grains.” This is not an exotic idea or a new idea. This stuff is even traded on the New York Stock Exchange every day. So it’s a standard animal feed, and in fact, it’s effects are so well known that the revenuers, the people who used to look for illegal alcohol producers, would go to county fairs and see who had the fattest hogs or cows to determine who was distilling alcohol in the county.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve heard economists and other scientists say that corn is not the best source or feedstock for making alcohol.

DAVID BLUME: Well, I would agree with that. Alcohol is being made from corn now because up until now we’ve had vast surpluses of it, to the point where we actually subsidized farmers in off years not to grow too much corn because it would depress the price too much. Now corn only gives you about 250 gallons per acre, in terms of yield. There are many other crops that I talk about in my book that are far superior for both producing energy and animal feed. For instance, sugar beets are a standard in Europe, where, instead of 250 gallons an acre, we’re looking at over 1000 gallons, and twice the animal feed that corn provides. Or we can be looking at things like sweet sorghum, which look a lot like corn, but grow with a fraction of the water and fertilizer, produce over 1000 gallons of alcohol per acre in the same place we’d normally grow corn, and in a lot of places where corn won’t grow.

IRA FLATOW: In your book, you don’t see this as a big business issue, but more producing alcohol on a community level.

DAVID BLUME: Well, there’s good economic and ecological reasons to change the way we produce alcohol. Right now, the size of plants that everybody considers economic are pretty big a hundred million gallons per year. But you run into logistical and ecological problems when you go that large. You start going as much as thirty and forty miles away to bring corn into a plant that size. Now, for instance, we were just talking about the distillers grains. Well, to send those somewhere else, you pretty much have to get the water out of them, and make them into dried distillers grains. So that would be the case if you’re transporting something, because water’s heavy. But if the plant was smaller, and all the inputs for the plant came from right around the plant, then actually, the byproducts could be fed wet, directly to cattle and adjoining cattle locations. That would cut the energy use to make alcohol in half, because the energy of drying the grains, so that we have a place to ship it, is a consequence of scale. The plants are too big. So what I propose in my book is that we look at much smaller scales, community stills, one million to maybe five million gallons per year, and basically one or more of these in every county in the United States.

IRA FLATOW: And so you have farmers then pooling or working together to become ethanol producing places, or would there not be a farmer, would it be a certain other entity doing it?

DAVID BLUME: There’s room for all kinds of entities to make alcohol, but fifty percent of the alcohol in the United States right now is made by farmer cooperatives in the Midwest, and those are big plants. But smaller operations could be operated by entrepreneurs, or by farmers on contract. There’s a concept in agriculture, small agriculture, called “community supported agriculture.” It was the way I farmed for ten years, which is where people subscribe to my farm, and I supply them with food all through the season. Now, we can do the same thing with energy. If a group of drivers gets together and starts a local alcohol station, then contracts with the farmer to produce the million gallons a year needed by that station, that could be a really direct linkage between the producer and the user. And the farmer has a sustainable income, and the users get the best price possible on the fuel, although there are a few large corporations in the middle who probably don’t get anything.

IRA FLATOW. When does it start to make sense for a farmer to do this?

DAVID BLUME: Well, in my book, I can show you an economic model that works with as low as 10,000 gallons per year, because the byproducts from making alcohol are actually more valuable than the alcohol. And this is really something that needs to be expanded. For instance, instead of just taking, lets say, the dried distillers grains and feeding them to cattle, well, that’s a fairly simple use of the byproduct. But let’s say instead, we took that byproduct and we fed it to like, say, mushrooms in other words, we’d use that raw material to grow mushrooms on first. Well, we get a great crop of mushrooms first. Then the byproduct from the mushroom production is still a large volume of the material. We can then use that to feed fish, because the proteins have now been very conveniently rearranged by the mushroom mycelium to be more nutritious for fish. The fish eat the byproduct, and then, of course, some of what they eat goes out the “back door” and then we have fish water that’s full of nutrients. We can use that to raise organic vegetables in greenhouses heated by the waste heat of the alcohol fuel plant and with atmosphere enriched by the carbon dioxide exhaled by the yeast while they make the alcohol. So by integrating all the different materials that come out of the plant, these alcohol plants actually ought to be major food centers of a wide variety of high-protein foods. So rather than their just being a simple way of making auto fuel, they’re really a way of creating food stability in each region.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re asking for a total rearrangement in the way we farm, then.

DAVID BLUME: Oh, this is the way we used to farm, though. Farmers used to never sell anything that couldn’t walk or fly off the farm, because there was no point is selling a raw material like corn to someone else to fatten their cattle. Most small farms in the past used to always add value to the raw material by raising something with it, and then selling the meat or the chickens or the eggs or whatever, because that’s where the money was. Today, in agriculture, the total byword is “value added.”  The USDA is constantly putting out programs to teach farmers to do exactly what we’re talking about.

IRA FLATOW: I was interested, in seeing in the paper today, that despite the wet spring and planting season, that farmers are going to have a bumper crop of corn this year.

DAVID BLUME: Absolutely. And last year we had the biggest crop we had had in about 33 years. We actually ended up with a surplus of 1.6 billion bushels of corn. Now, that flies in the face of all the propaganda against alcohol, because if ethanol was driving up the price of corn, there is an embedded assumption in there that there wasn’t enough corn to go around, and so ethanol was competing with food for the very same grain, and that drove the price up. But what do you say when there’s a surplus of corn that, after everyone bought all the corn they wanted, there was corn left over? You would say that a surplus would drive down the price of corn. And that’s what should have happened in a normal year. But as some of the folks who have taken my suggestions, and are now introducing a bill to stop the gaming of the commodities system, someone had their thumb on the scale, so to speak, and is manipulating the market.

IRA FLATOW: You don’t think that it’s just the demand from overseas buying the corn up from the farmers, driving the price up?

DAVID BLUME: A surplus is a surplus. We ended up with 1.6 billion extra bushels of corn after everyone bought all they could, foreign, domestic, everyone. We have silos overflowing with corn in this country we cannot sell. So the price should go down if the market wasn’t being manipulated.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if we can get a phone call or two into the program. Let’s go to Scott in Morehead, Minnesota. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT: My question is this: In northeast and northwestern Minnesota, we have a lot of programs going on where the government literally pays some of the farmers not to plant some or parts of their fields. Why can’t, rather than that money being used for that, why can’t those fields be used for planting corn, to be used for the ethanol, or whatever?

DAVID BLUME: That’s a great question, and the answer is, that’s exactly what’s going on. The amount of subsidy payments has been dropping dramatically since the alcohol fuel industry has been taking up the surplus. The idea in the past was, if you didn’t pay people not to grow too much corn, the surplus would cause the price to crater, and all the farmers would lose money. So it was economically smarter for having a stable food supply to have some farmers sit out a season or two, and be able to keep the supply and demand kind of “on par.” But now that we’re talking about growing different crops, for instance, up there in Minnesota, you could use wetland reserve money and plant cattail marshes, on low spots on the farm, and legally harvest the cattails, which are sixty percent starch. And under the right conditions that we talk about in our book, you’re able to actually get over seven thousand gallons of alcohol per acre from cattails, which is many, many times the yield you get from corn. So I’d like to see farmers move into other crops. And I’m working with the American Corn Growers Association right now, to explore diversifying cropping beyond corn to many other energy crops.

IRA FLATOW: I haven’t heard about cattails, but cattails would even regrow themselves if you cut them down, would they not?

DAVID BLUME: Oh, you can’t stop them from growing! One of the things I talk about in my book, Ira, is that if we went to cattails to process the nation’s sewage, which is already done in 500 communities across the country, we would solve a problem that was on the earlier show today on NPR, which is what happens in the “dead zone” in the Mississippi. Because anywhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, if you flush a toilet, that ends up eventually in the Mississippi River and in the Gulf of Mexico, along with all the fertilizer. And that causes the “dead zone” in the Mississippi and the Gulf, which is where algae blooms and then decomposes, using up the oxygen. And anything that can’t swim or crawl away dies of suffocation in the Gulf. But if we went ahead and attacked the problem from two directions: One, capture the nutrients upstream in cattails, we would end up using less than two percent of the farmland of the United States to produce all the alcohol we need to replace all the gasoline and diesel, while we clean up the nutrients we dump in rivers from our sewage treatment plants. But we can also go after the problem from the other end, in the Gulf itself. We can grow marine algae, and marine algae is basically also a plant. And these are macro-algaes. They grow a foot and a half a day. We call it kelp off the West Coast. We’d use a different species in the Gulf. And it’s made out of fructose, or corn syrup sugar, basically. We can supply the entire nation, without using any soil, if we went ahead and raise kelp, both off of California and off of the Gulf, to make alcohol from, and then we could use those useless pipelines coming up from the Gulf to distribute the alcohol around the nation.

IRA FLATOW: It sounds so simple. What’s holding it up?

DAVID BLUME: Well … part of it is … you know, there’s this … (sighs) I mean, this …

IRA FLATOW: I only have a minute left. See if you can give me a quick answer. (chuckles)

DAVID BLUME: The quick answer is, it’s politics. Basically, the people who control the energy that we are using today would like to keep that control, and pretty much stand in the way of other alternatives coming into play. And part of that is controlling the information people get about alcohol. There’s a long history of dirty tricks from Big Oil, keeping people confused and off balance about alcohol, going all the way back to Prohibition, which was actually completely funded by Rockefeller to take alcohol off the market as a fuel, and had very little to do with drinking. So we have a long history of battle with Big Oil, and it’s not over. But, what I point out in my book is that we can win by not trying to go at the big scale, but doing it at the community scale, the entrepreneurial scale, and start producing alcohol and food locally and cleaning up our environment at the same time we produce fuel.

IRA FLATOW: All right, David, I’ve run out of time. Want to thank you for taking time to be with us.

DAVID BLUME: Thanks a lot, Ira

IRA FLATOW: David Blume is Executive Director of the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas! , if you’d like to pick that up, published last year.

End of interview. Some text omitted for clarity.