Perspective on Minnesota’s ethanol industry

Tom Haag
Minnesota Corn Farmer

Five years ago ethanol was the darling of the media. It was a movement toward energy independence and security, a tribute to American ingenuity and innovation and a renewable fuel developed in fertile farmlands across the United States. Ethanol embodied the true American spirit. Fast-forward to 2012 and somehow, ethanol opponents have managed to villainize it, painting it as being the root of nearly all that is wrong in our country.

Ethanol has been blamed for the worst drought in 50 years, for the skyrocketing costs of our grocery bills and for creating a continuous cycle of subsidies. It’s convenient to point an angry finger at farmers and ethanol producers, when one is unencumbered by facts.

What other trouble has ethanol been causing? The fall of Wall Street? The housing crisis? Facebook’s IPO disaster? You have to ask yourself if there is something else at the root of all this ethanol blame game.

I can’t help but wonder what went so wrong so fast. Things started off so well with the introduction of ethanol, finally giving us a choice at the gas station. Ethanol kicked off a conversation about renewable fuels, teaching us that we can be less dependent on foreign fossil fuels. We found a renewable fuel that made the air cleaner. We started saving money at the pump. And, we sparked an economic resurgence in many of our rural communities, pumping money into towns that so desperately needed it and adding $42.4 billion to the national GDP.

The list goes on and on. But frankly, I wonder if people are ignoring the successes.

Don’t get me wrong. Ethanol is not perfect, but it’s a healthy start in the right direction — and certainly better than petroleum.

Ethanol is an emerging technology, and every year it gets better, cleaner and more efficient. We aren’t asking anyone to turn a blind eye to ethanol’s shortcomings, but we are asking for a balanced approach to the story.

At the root of the issue is the perception that there is not enough corn for both food uses and ethanol production. Let’s start with some facts. Nearly three-quarters of our field corn supply still goes into food and feed. Remember, you don’t use the entire kernel of corn when making ethanol, just the starch. After the starch is removed, the remaining part of the kernel, including all of the proteins, is used to make high-quality livestock feed.

Furthermore, the corn that goes on our plates and on our grills is sweet corn — that’s not used to make ethanol. Here’s another fact: Farmers today grow five times as much corn as they did in the 1930s — on 20 percent less land — a fact that ethanol opponents seem to ignore. And, even in the midst of a devastating drought, our yield averages are still better than they were just 20 years ago.

According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the U.S. used 13.9 billion gallons of ethanol last year, displacing the equivalent of 485 million barrels of imported oil and saving the country $49.7 billion. And if none of this information gets you thinking a little more positively about ethanol, how about the fact that in the Midwest, ethanol reduced gas prices by an average of $1.69 per gallon?


Instead of working so hard to vilify ethanol, can we at least agree that it’s done some good things for our country?

It would be difficult to deny that ethanol has started a biofuels movement in the United States by forcing us all to look at sustainability.

Why is it that we don’t want to talk about a single one of the real success stories in today’s economy, not to mention the biofuels revolution? Much of the media, environmentalists, academia and politicians are debating ethanol from an entirely one-sided perspective, ignoring facts and statistics that are inconvenient.

Consumers are hearing a distorted debate based on ideology, not science and reality. The pounding of anti-ethanol messages into everyday life has consumers turning their backs on ethanol and not seeing the larger picture of the success and importance of the biofuel movement.

Energy is a big tent. We know there are new developments to come. Some of those will include ethanol. But for that to happen, we must commit to focusing on the facts when it comes to telling the story.


– Tom Haag is a Minnesota corn farmer from Eden Valley, Minn.