Fueling Our Cars, and a Growing Debate

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

The simple ear of corn: a pleasing yellow, delicious with salt and melted butter. Also fine in corn bread, cornflakes and grits.

But corn is also a prime source for ethanol, one of the most viable substitutes for gasoline.

That alternative -- human sustenance vs. sport-ute -- is prompting a most unusual debate among environmentalists. Is it better to use corn to make fritters or fuel?

The man who's most worried about the competition for corn is Lester R. Brown, a MacArthur "genius grant" winner with impeccable environmental credentials.

"The grain required to fill an SUV tank," he says, "could feed one person for one year."

Earth's farmers do not harvest enough corn and grain to feed everyone as it is, he says. In six of the past seven years, world grain production has fallen short of consumption, drawing world grain stocks down to the lowest level in 34 years. As oil prices rise, so does the desire for crop-based fuels such as ethanol. Today the United States uses about 7 percent of the world corn harvest for ethanol, Brown says, "but within the next two years that quantity could double."

When Brown laments, people listen.

A former farmer, he founded Worldwatch Institute in 1974 and the Earth Policy Institute in 2001. In addition to the MacArthur grant, he has received the U.N. Environment Prize and a recycling binful of honorary degrees. He has just revised the wonkishly titled "Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble," one of the 50 books he has written or co-written.

"By the end of 2007," he writes in one of his newsletter updates, "the emerging competition between the 800 million automobile owners who want to maintain their mobility and the world's 2 billion poorest people who want simply to survive will be on center stage."

On a lovely late fall morning, Brown, 72, is drawing alarming word-pictures for about 700 people in a ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. This is a gathering of the Department of Defense folks responsible for reducing the impact of military bases on nature.

One answer to the world's energy lust, Brown says, is wind power. He envisions fields of windmills -- in gusty states such as North Dakota, Kansas and Texas. He sings the glories of bicycling and recycling, of geothermal heating and solar rooftops. And he bad-mouths ethanol.

Sounding like a dramatic reading of an Al Gore movie script, Brown enumerates the threats: Global warming. Shrinking forests. Expanding deserts. Falling water tables."There is a long list of things that suggest we are in trouble," he says.

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