Agricultural practices in the United States have long been dominated by corn, with vast stretches of the country’s landscape dedicated to its cultivation. However, a surprising new trend is emerging as airlines now set their sights on corn as a potential power source for their planes. This ambitious goal has the potential to transform America’s Corn Belt once again, benefiting both farmers and ethanol producers. However, the increased demand for corn and ethanol also raises concerns about the depletion of groundwater, a vital resource for the nation.
Corn is a water-intensive crop, and the production of a single gallon of ethanol can require hundreds of gallons of water. While airlines embrace the idea of ethanol as a cleaner fuel alternative, the threat to groundwater remains largely absent from discussions. The increased production of ethanol for aviation purposes would require a significant expansion of ethanol production, nearly doubling current levels. This could place further strain on the already fragile aquifers, exacerbating groundwater depletion, especially in the face of climate change-induced droughts and unreliable rainfall.
Airlines such as United and Delta have already taken steps towards incorporating sustainable aviation fuel, derived from ethanol, into their operations. United Airlines has signed an agreement with a Nebraska ethanol company to power 50,000 flights annually with sustainable aviation fuel. Delta, on the other hand, plans to establish a sustainable fuel hub in Minnesota, a major corn-producing state. These initiatives align with President Biden’s vision of farmers providing 95 percent of sustainable airline fuel within the next 20 years.
While ethanol is touted as a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in aviation, concerns about its impact on groundwater cannot be ignored. The agricultural industry, along with ethanol producers, argue that agriculture has become more efficient over time and may not significantly increase the demand for water. They also assert that ethanol production has become cleaner, with government incentives helping drive further progress.
However, critics argue that the current renewable fuel options for aviation are costly and would lead to increased ticket prices if mandated. Adding ethanol to the fuel mix could potentially reduce costs and expedite the adoption of renewable fuels in the aviation sector. The debate lingers on, with industry experts and policymakers grappling with the trade-offs between sustainability and resource conservation.
Q: What is sustainable aviation fuel?
A: Sustainable aviation fuel, often derived from ethanol, is a biofuel alternative used in the aviation industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: How does corn contribute to ethanol production?
A: Corn is a primary feedstock for ethanol production, and a significant portion of the United States’ corn crop is converted into ethanol.
Q: Why is groundwater depletion a concern?
A: Groundwater serves as a crucial water source for various purposes, including irrigation. Excessive use of groundwater can lead to depletion, affecting ecosystems, agriculture, and the availability of freshwater resources.
Q: How do government incentives support ethanol production?
A: Government incentives, such as tax credits, can encourage and support ethanol production by providing financial benefits to producers.
- “Airlines Race Toward a Future of Powering Their Jets With Corn,” by Max Bearak, Dionne Searcey, and Mira Rojanasakul. The New York Times Online (November 29, 2023).
- Ramsey, Steven, Brian Williams, Philip Jarrell, and Todd Hubbs. February 2023. Global Demand for Fuel Ethanol Through 2030, BIO-05, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
- Hobson, Peter. “Wheat set for biggest monthly gain since June.” Reuters (November 30, 2023).
- Reuters. “U.S. agriculture chief blames Brazil for 20% fall in China corn exports.” KFGO (December 1, 2023).
- Gu, Hallie. “China’s Farmers Forced to Let Vegetables Rot as Demand Wanes.” Bloomberg News (November 30, 2023).