In a new study, Professor Praveen Kumar and graduate student Meredith Richardson find that using corn for biofuel comes with greater environmental costs and fewer benefits than using corn for food. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The use of ethanol in gasoline has been the bane of engine owners for years. The biofuel that’s derived from corn and added to gasoline can cause mechanical problems – and some experts say the biofuel has not proven to be as big an environmental win as was originally claimed.

A new study of the overall economic and energy costs confirms some suspicions: corn is better off on your dinner plate than in your gas tank, as published in the journal Earth’s Future.

The new study focused on “critical zone services” to assess what the crops cost to grow – and how much bang for the buck is made for each of the end products, according to the two scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The human energy and resource input involved in agriculture production alters the composition of the critical zone, which we are able to convert into a social cost,” said Praveen Kumar, civil and environmental engineering professor.

“There are a lot of abstract concepts to contend with when discussing human-induced effects in the critical zone in agricultural areas,” added Meredith Richardson, graduate student, the other author. “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.”

The major factor in their overall value assessment came down to soil – particularly the environmental impacts from fluctuations in the nutrients left in the dirt.

The results heavily favored corn as food: the economic value of corn came to $1,492 per hectare, while biofuel actually causes a $10-per-hectare loss in greater economic terms, they conclude.

“These results conclude that feed production systems are more energy efficient and less environmentally costly than corn-based ethanol,” they write.