Step aside, corn: There's a better choice for ethanol production


Years ago, a teacher forced me to read Fernand Braudel's three volume history of the world. While most of the information contained in Braudel's amazing opus has, thankfully, managed to leak out of my brain, I still remember that he was a huge fan of the potato.

In the 40+ plus pages that he spent discussing the miracle tuber, Braudel noted that it was capable of massively increasing the carbohydrate production of a field, meaning that fewer farmers could produce more food with less work. This, in turn, meant that more former farmers could move to the city, get jobs in factories, and generally contribute to the industrial revolution. In other words, the victory of the potato over wheat and other grains directly led to the development of the modern world.

I was reminded of this recently when agricultural researchers determined that, in terms of carbohydrates per acre, sweet potatoes and cassavas are two to three times more productive than corn. This is important because these carbohydrates can then be converted into ethanol. Currently, the majority of the US's ethanol program has been focused on corn, which has massively driven up food costs. In addition to corn's questionable value as a medium for ethanol production, the fact that it has to be trucked cross-country to ethanol plants further reduces its effectiveness and environmental viability.

Unfortunately, the startup costs for sweet potatoes and cassavas are higher than those for corn, but if an economical agricultural program could be developed, the tuber that jump-started the industrial revolution could also power our 21st century cars!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. When asked why he loves sweet potatoes so much, he shrugs and states that "I yam what I yam."