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.

It's so quiet in the room you can hear ice melt.

For a tomato farmer, Les Brown has come a far piece. His father was a sharecropper who scraped together enough money to buy a 40-acre farm in southern New Jersey. Brown was the first person in his family to graduate from elementary school. While in high school he and his younger brother bought a tractor for $200 and launched a successful tomato-growing venture. Eventually the company was sending out 1.5 million pounds of tomatoes a year.

In 1955 he graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in agricultural science. He planned to return to the tomato business, but a six-month exchange program in India changed his life. In 1959 he moved to Washington and became an international analyst for the Department of Agriculture. He got advanced degrees from the University of Maryland and Harvard University.

After nearly a half-century of urban living, there are almost no traces of the farmer left in Brown. By all appearances, he is a Washington creature through and through -- a professorially dressed enviro-philosopher, a self-propelled machine that runs on oxygen, ideas and recognition.

Among environmentalists, Brown's fears over man-vs.-machine competition for corn make him something of an iconoclast. There are those who believe that his zeal is causing a far more serious problem.

"He's painting such a bleak picture of the future of biofuels based on an extrapolation from corn," says Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, "that it could damage the development of biofuels as alternatives to gasoline in general." The coalition is seeking change in the country's energy policy to address oil dependence and climate change.

"The production of food has never been a limiting factor in world hunger," Detchon says. The problem has always been surpluses and distribution.

Brown's fallacy, Detchon says, is fixating on corn. The future of organic fuels is not in the growing of crops such as corn that feed people or animals, but of weeds and switch grasses that are inedible -- and still make perfectly good fuel for machines.

"The energy market is so vast, it's not practical to expect that agriculture is going to supply all of the world's petroleum needs," Detchon says. "Wind is one possible solution. We need all kinds of renewable energy alternatives."

Brown says switch grass is nice. But he fears that by the time the research is done to bring such fuel to market, it will be too late.

The Worldwatch Institute, which Brown left in 2001, has become a champion of biofuels. The institute's president, Christopher Flavin, says his group has studied a variety of alternative energy possibilities and believes that rapidly developing technologies, new crops and innovative production methods will make organic fuel more appealing. "The biofuels industry," he says, "is moving away from corn."

Brown "has been a prolific and insightful observer of environmental stresses and a leader in the global environmental movement," Detchon says, "but I put him in the Malthusian camp . . . predicting that human demands will overwhelm the capacity of the Earth to supply them."

Says Detchon: "Lester has underestimated human ingenuity."

To Brown, there is not enough time to experiment with organic fuels. Because of national security concerns and potential profits, he says, grain-based ethanol production "is now driven largely by market forces." He says that large-scale commercialization of organic fuels is at least five years in the future.

He is certain he knows what changes need to be made.

"It's not that I'm right all the time, but I'm right most of the time," Brown says. "I wouldn't get the recognition I get if I wasn't right much of the time."

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