Monday, December 8, 2008


If food, clothing and shelter are considered the fundamental pre-requisites for decent living, industrialized world has added another fundamental need in the form of gasoline without which their population cannot manage their life. The quality of life is intimately dependent on automobiles and cheap gasoline. The over dependence on fossil fuel and the oil shocks of sixties and 2008 when crude oil prices registered uncontrolled escalation made the world think of alternate energy options with renewable potential. One of the alternatives was use of ethanol as a substitute or supplement to fossil fuel so that the over dependence on the latter can be brought down progressively. Ethanol can be made from a number of carbon sources like sugar cane, cereals like corn or cellulosic substrates through bio-tech route.

Corn, also known as Maize is one of the most commercialized crops in the history of mankind and its cultivation is universally practiced in all the continents. World-wide production is estimated at around 770 million tons with US alone contributing about 40%. While it is used both as a human food as well as animal feed, it has many other non-food uses which makes it unique in some way. The US society is so dependent on corn even small price fluctuations in the commodity market can reflect on the lives of the citizens. Nearly all the chickens and 93% of beef reared in USA are fed corn exclusively. Hamburger, chicken sandwich and french fries have corn connection. Almost all sweetened beverages are based on High Fructose Syrup derived from corn solids. Corn starch is an important food adjunct that finds hundreds of uses in food as well as non-food industries. French fries are made using corn oil as the frying medium. The over dependence of the US food industry on corn is reflected in the fact that three major food chains Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King, account for more than half the restaurants in the country with sales of more than $100 billion a year and their main menu is built around hamburger, chicken sandwich and fries. A customer who consumes a combination of the above three items in any fast food outlet derives 50% of daily calories, 80% of carbohydrate, 75% of protein and 100% of fat requirements a day!

Though solar energy, wind power, wave energy, geothermal energy, ocean current energy etc have been often talked about as renewable energy options, practical constraints make their global adoption beset with logistical and economic road blocks. Nuclear energy is lately coming into play and can be a potential source of unlimited energy but the problem of radiation hazard posed by the spent fuel is yet to be fully addressed. The dual use of atomic reactors and fuels for both energy and nuclear bombs poses further restrictions on their application world-wide. Most popular choice so far has been ethanol that is used in blends with gasoline. Brazil uses 100% sugar cane derived ethanol in 50% of the automobiles in that country while others run on flexi engines which can use both blends and as well as ethanol alone. In USA and many other countries 10% ethanol blended gasoline is progressively replacing 100% gasoline in order to reduce the dependence on non-renewable petroleum fuels. In 2004 USA used 3.5 billion gallons of corn ethanol for fuel blending and mandated the petroleum industry to use 9 billion gallons in 2009 and 36 billion gallons by 2022. Since 2004 corn production increased globally by 51 million tons of which 98% was used up for producing ethanol for automobile industry. The paradox was that food demand during the same period increased by 30 million tons causing significant supply demand distortions in global markets.
What is galling is that energy dynamics do not favor corn as an efficient converter as energy yield in the form of ethanol from this food grain is less than one third of the energy input needed to raise, process and convert it to energy! It is unfortunate that at a critical time in the fight for survival by the mankind, a few nations indulge in such profligacy and ostentatious wastage. But for the massive subsidy provided to the rich farming communities, corn would never have been able to exert the influence it enjoys to day in deciding on the destiny of nations like USA and push the world to the brink of a disaster that is waiting to happen.

There was a time when affluent countries like USA used to ridicule small countries depending on one or two commodities for survival and the term "Banana Republic" was liberally used to club these countries. Probably countries like Malaysia (Palm Oil), Philippines ( Coconut and Pineapple), Colombia(Coffee), Ivory Coast (Cocoa), Mauritius (Sugar) etc all fall into this category. It is the sign of changing time that USA to day has joined this club by its over dependence on corn, deserving the epithet " Corny Country". India and China are fortunate in having a diversified basket of agricultural, horticultural, livestock and fishery commodities, not too much depending on one or the other and enjoying the position in the top five producers of the world. The food consumption habits are also so diversified that the staples are based on a variety of cereals, pulses and oil seeds, fruits and vegetables and others produced within the country.


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