Corn provides both nutrition and a renewable energy source. Now, a study has shown that the crop’s environmental costs are lower if it is used as food rather than as a biofuel.
Renewable biofuels can come with hidden economic and environmental issues, and it has long been discussed whether corn is better used as food or an energy source.
Now, researchers at the University of Illinois have quantified these issues in terms of the economics of the production system. They found that the environmental costs of using corn as a biofuel are greater than using it for food.
In monetary terms, their results show that the net social and economic worth of food corn production in America is USD 1,492 per hectare, versus a USD 10 per hectare loss for biofuel corn production.
To compare the energy efficiency and environmental impacts of corn production, the researchers inventoried the resources required for corn production and processing, then determined the economic and environmental impact of using these resources.
“We want to present it in a way that will show the equivalent dollar value of the human energy expended in agricultural production and how much we gain when corn is used as food versus biofuel,” explained researcher Meredith Richardson in a statement about the findings.
The Illinois team accounted for numerous factors in their analysis, including assessing the energy required to prepare and maintain the landscape for agricultural production for corn and its conversion to biofuel.
They then quantified the environmental benefits and impacts in terms of critical zone services, representing the effects on the atmosphere, water quality and corn’s societal value, both as food and fuel.
Most of the environmental impacts were caused by soil nutrient fluxes. Richardson explained: “Soil’s role is often overlooked in this type of assessment, and viewing the landscape as a critical zone forces us to include that.”
The findings were published in the journal Earth’s Future.
Photo credit: Fellowship of the Rich/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0