The Post's recent editorial "The Corn Belt's Favorite Fuel" reflects prevailing misunderstandings regarding the production of alcohol fuels and current U.S. farm policy. As the author of the legislation you referred to, I feel compelled to respond to your contention that the public is being asked to choose between food and fuel and that net energy balance considerations make gasohol from grain alcohol impractical.
Your opposition to alcohol fuel produced from grain seems to be based almost exclusively on the argument that it would "divert good grain from the food markets to make motor fuel." Such a statement is simply not supported by the facts. In the alcohol production process, none of the protein in the original grain is lost. On the contrary, because of the action of the yeast, the amount of protein is actually slightly increased. Only some of the starch in the grain is lost. Obviously the world is deficient in protein, not starch. New technological processes produce a high-protein food supplement that is suitable for human comsumption. By putting agricultural lands that the government now pays farmers to idle back into production, we can actually increase our ability to feed hungry people while helping to mitigate our problems with liquid fuel supply.
The byproduct of alcohol-fuels production is especially valuable for animal feeding purposes, as well. In an experiment conducted at the University of Kentucky, researchers fed a group of cattle a given quantity of hay and 100 bushels of corn. Another group of cattle was fed the same quantity of hay and 80 bushels of corn together with the byproduct from the other 20 bushels that had been run through an alcohol plant. Amazingly enough, the cattle fed the ration from which alcohol had been produced actually gained more weight than those fed the straight corn! This is due to what is called the "high bypass value" of the byproduct. Clearly, in a protein-deficient world, there is no food-versus-fuel trade-off; we can have our cake and eat it, too.
The argument that we should forget about gasohol because there is a negative net energy balance in the production of alcohol from grain is also outdated. First, it is important to remember that the energy balance calculations that are now being quoted are based on the performance of alcohol plants that were designed for the production of beverage-grade alcohol at a time when energy was cheap. In contrast, Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur, Ill., which is the largest producer of fuel-grade alcohol in the United States, has been certified by the Department of Energy as having a positive net energy balance.
Engineering firms now tell us that they can construct new "grass roots" plants utilizing recent technologies that have positive net energy balances of up to a ratio of 4 to 1. Of course, we can use a variety of energy sources, such as coal and solar, for providing the process heat needed in an alcohol-production facility. If we could burn 100 calories of our abundant coal, for example, to produce 95 calories of scare liquid fuel, it would certainly be a good exchange. Finally, it should be noted that if assessments of the net energy balance were to be the sole basis for energy policy-making, there would be no electricity in this country, since it requires approximately three BTUs of coal or oil energy to produce the equivalent of one BTU of electricity.
Those who say that producing ethanol from grains will not of itself solve the nation's energy problems are correct. However, the development of a national alcohol-fuels industry based in part on grains will serve as the catalyst for the technological development needed to enable us to transform the abundant cellulose materials, including municipal and agricultural wastes, into alcohol fuel. It will be easy to adapt plants that use grains as feedstocks for alcohol production to accommodate cellulose whenever that technology becomes commercially feasible. In the meantime, the United States could benefit from the valuable ethanol that could be produced from agricultural commmodities.
I want to stress again that I am not contending that the production of alcohol fuel from grains and other renewable resources would be a panacea. However, a national program promoting the production of this needed supplement to our dwindling liquid fuel supplies would yield substantial benefits, both tangible and intangible. Certainly, it is time that U.S. energy policy stops reflecting "technological timidity," as Daniel Greenberg termed it [oped, May 22], and adopt some positive attitudes to end our present reliance on imported oil. This country was built by those who concentrated their energies on finding solutions, not in glorifying the problems. The adoption of a national alcohol-fuels program would be a positive expression of American determination and resolve to remedy its debilitating energy problems, and I believe that it is high time we accepted the challenge.