Should the United States drop the 54 cents per gallon tariff on ethanol?

The ethanol policy of the United States provides very little environmental benefit and some economic damage.  By setting a tariff of 54 cents a gallon for imported ethanol, Congress has blocked environmentally efficient ethanol from Brazil and other sugarcane producing countries in favor of an inefficient corn-based ethanol produced by farmers in the Midwest of the US.  The economic damage is embodied in the higher prices for corn faced by American consumers.  The environmental concern emanates from the 800 gallons of ethanol produced per acre of sugarcane versus only 328 gallons per acre for corn.[1]


The situation is actually worse than implied by these gallons per acre figures.  Corn is a starch and must use additional energy to be converted to sugar before it can be transformed into ethanol.  Consequently, while sugarcane produces 8 units of output energy for every unit of input energy, corn produces only 1.3 output units.  While ethanol from corn reduces carbon emissions by between 10 and 20 percent relative to gasoline, ethanol from sugarcane reduces such emissions by between 87 and 96 percent.[2]

To make matters worse, the farm bill provides a special tax credit to US ethanol producers of 51 cents per gallon.  This means that the full hurdle that imported ethanol must exceed has risen to $1.05 per gallon.  That’s a significant addition to pain at the pump.  How can politicians tell us that they "feel our pain" if they hit us with this double-whammy?

Protectionists argue that we must have these ethanol import barriers to protect the Amazon Rain Forest.  This is a strange argument since wet areas like the Amazon would rot the roots of sugarcane plants.  Sugarcane is grown on just 2 percent of Brazil’s arable land.  The sugarcane growing regions are well over a thousand kilometers from the Amazon -- primarily in the southern state of Sao Paulo and along the easternmost tip of Brazil.  Even with flex-fuel vehicles accounting for 72 percent of vehicles sold in Brazil in 2007, only 3 million hectares of land are used for ethanol production versus 200 million hectares for pasture.  Moreover, the Brazilian government is acting to forbid the planting of sugarcane in the Amazon region or in the Pantanal swamplands, although it is hard to imagine that anyone would want to plant in such sugarcane-hostile regions in any case.[3]

 

[1] See article by Jack Chang of the McClatchy Newspapers as reported in The Kansas City Star on Sunday, May 4, 2008 on page A16.

[2] See article by John Rumsey and Jonathan Wheatley in The Financial Times, Wednesday, May 21, 2008 on page 6.

[3]Rumsey and Wheatley, ibid.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.