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Corn, ethanol and the war on terrorism

“While filling your vehicle with gas, you look into the side-view mirror and what do you see? You see a supporter of worldwide terrorism.” That quote is from James Woolsey, former director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

Robert Zubrin is a protégé of Woolsey and at a recent combined meeting of the North Carolina corn, soybean and small grain grower associations, he detailed an opportunity for Southeast grain growers to make a difference in the war on terrorism and to help right the troubled economic ship of the United States.

Zubrin has authored several books on energy and space exploration. He is also president of Pioneer Astronautics, an aerospace research and development company in Lakewood, Colo. He holds a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of Washington and served for a number of years as a staff engineer at Lockheed Martin Astronautics.

Zubrin says energy issues in the U.S. include a national security issue, an economic welfare issue, an environmental issue and the overall, ultimate issue of what happens when oil runs out.

“Grain farmers in the U.S. can play a significant, and positive, role in helping our country overcome each of these issues,” Zubrin says. Among the Southeastern states, North Carolina is the only one ranked in the top 20 in corn production. However, collectively the Carolina’s, Virginia, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia are projected to produce 120 million-130 million bushels of corn in 2010.

The most pressing of these issues, he says, is the impact the price of fuel has on our national security.

“In 1972, the U.S. paid $4 billion for all oil imports. At that time, many thought paying $4 billion, which equaled 4 percent of our total defense budget for that year was far too much.

“By 1999, we paid $40 billion, or 15 percent of our national defense budget, for imported oil. A new generation of economists warned of dire consequences if we continued to spend so much money on imported oil.

“Within a decade (2007) we paid $300 billion, which was almost 70 percent of the defense budget. We doubled that in 2008, which was over 100 percent of our total defense budget.

“Not only are we funding both sides in our war on terror, now we are funding the enemy with more money than we are funding to fight them,” Zubrin says.

By the standards of any economist or militarist $600 billion means power. The big question is, “who are we empowering with our $600 million and what are they going to do with it,” Zubrin asks.

In 2008, he says, Saudi Arabia received $400 billion of our $600 billion dollars in oil imports. The Saudi’s also control OPEC, which produces over 40 percent of the oil produced in the World.

Not only do the Saudis have the most oil — four times more than any other single OPEC member, but they also have the cheapest oil. Zubrin contends it costs the Saudis 50 cents a barrel to take oil from the ground. Supply and price allows them to control OPEC.

“We see the opulence of Saudi sheiks and for certain they have the most narcissistic lifestyle of any culture in the history of our planet,” Zubrin says. “However, building desert oasis playgrounds and billion dollar resorts is just a small part of how the Saudis spend our oil money,” he adds.

A large part of the money goes to support their religion—Wahhabism. Zubrin says Wahhabism is the worst variant of Islamism. It is extreme and calls for extermination of other religious sects, according to Zubrin.

For more than two centuries, Wahhabism has been Saudi Arabia's dominant faith. It is an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don't practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies.

Critics say that Wahhabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Wahhabism's explosive growth began in the 1970s when Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas) and mosques from Islamabad to Culver City, Calif.

Over the past decade alone, Wahhabi funded terrorists have killed thousands of people worldwide — from virtually every religion in the world. As horrible as that is, Zubrin says the economic stranglehold the Saudis have on the rest of the world is far worse.

“Despite a rapidly growing world population and skyrocketing demand for oil, the Saudi’s continue to cut oil production. In 1973, they produced 40 million barrels of oil per day. In 2009, they produced 28 million barrels per day. Continuing down this path can only end in disaster,” Zubrin says.

One of the few blows against this impending social and economic disaster, Zubrin adds, has been struck by agriculture. In the U.S., corn growers and the infrastructure that supports corn production in the U.S., have overcome fuel versus food and other social criticisms to produce enough grain to provide the needs of the country’s fledgling ethanol industry with little negative impact on the food supply.

In 1997, the U.S. industry turned out 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol from 481 million bushels of corn. In January of 2010, in one month, the U.S. industry turned out 1,065,372,000 gallons of ethanol. Despite this impressive growth, there is a scant 22 day supply of ethanol.

In 2009, U.S. corn producers set a record with 13.2 billion bushels. Corn yield average topped 165 bushels per acre. Despite the impressive growth of ethanol production in the U.S., less than a third of the record crop will go to ethanol production.

In fact, the U.S. corn surplus prior to the 2010 harvest will be more than 5.5 percent, primarily because of a slow down in demand for livestock feed.

Larger corn inventories may keep corn prices low for growers — May corn futures fell in mid-April to $3.49 a bushel, the lowest price since October.

The model for over-coming dependence on foreign oil is Brazil. They did it with sugar, in reality excess sugar that had little value on the world market. Brazil turned sugar to ethanol and in little over a decade has become virtually independent of foreign oil.

Other countries have become similarly energy efficient using other crops. Sweden, for example, is nearly free of imported oil by extracting ethanol from wood, primarily wood waste left on the forest floor.

What American farmers are trying to do with corn, and to a much lesser degree soybeans and barley, Brazilian farmers have been doing for over a decade with sugar. Sugar production in Brazil is expected to top 34 million tons in the 2009-2010 growing season, an increase of 19 percent from the previous year. In turn, ethanol production in Brazil is expected to increase 15-16 percent.

Being free of dependence on foreign oil is a primary reason the Brazilian economy emerged relatively unscathed from the ongoing economic recession seen in the U.S. and most parts of the world.

While the country continues to attract large quantities of foreign direct investment ($45 billion in 2008 alone), it has become a major investor in its own right. In 2006, Brazil became a significant net foreign investor, a feat not seen in any other Latin American country — and scant few around the world.

Using corn for ethanol in the U.S., compared to using sugar for ethanol in Brazil, is much like the old adage of comparing apples to oranges. Replacing a high percentage of imported oil with ethanol from corn in the U.S. is not realistic.

The point is, Zubrin says, is that U.S. farmers have and are making a difference and should be recognized for their efforts in beginning the movement toward sustainable energy. Ethanol from corn and other grain crops and biodiesel from soybeans and other oil-containing crops can make a difference in the dependence on foreign oil.

Failing to find alternatives to foreign oil, Zubrin says, will be catastrophic for future generations of Americans. “We fear China’s growing economy, but China is in the same energy boat as us and the rest of world, excluding a few countries, like Brazil.

“The biggest fear of continued dependence on foreign oil is economic takeover by OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia,” Zubrin says. He cites some truly frightening possible scenarios.

In 2008, OPEC cleared $1.5 trillion in net export profits. The total worth of U.S. Fortune 500 companies is $18 trillion. At the current rate of economic growth by OPEC, within six years they will have the money to buy controlling interest in every U.S. Fortune 500 company.

“Supporting technology and using it to grow higher yielding grain crops that can provide both food and energy is a major step in fighting terrorism and U.S. farmers have taken that step,” Zubrin concludes.

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TAGS: Corn
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