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Corn Ethanol Debate

Future Power or Future Problem?


Thomas A. Davis
Division of Molecular and Life Sciences
Loras College


To what extent should corn be used for the production of ethanol? Are we better off producing corn for food or producing corn for fuel? This case study uses a technique called "intimate debate" (also known as "constructive controversy") in order to examine this issue. Each student participates in a set of mini-debates for which there is no audience. Students are paired with a teammate; these teams then take turns arguing each side of the issue while seated across from their opponents who do the same. The session concludes with opposing teams reaching consensus. Detailed instructions are included in the case handout to prepare students for the experience before debate day. This case was used successfully in a sophomore/junior level, general education, environmental biology course. It would fit appropriately into any college course that discusses environmental issues related to farming practices, land use, alternative fuels, renewable energy, or sustainability.


  • Describe in writing three reasons why producing corn ethanol is sustainable and three reasons why it is not sustainable.
  • Describe the process of producing ethanol from other biomass sources besides corn, like switchgrass, sugarcane, sugar beets or corn stover.
  • Foster active and critical listening to two sides of an issue in order to use this information to decide which side to support.
  • Learn that there are at least two sides to an issue and to respect and try to understand the viewpoints of both sides.
  • Evaluate internet sources for credibility and accuracy and give reasons why one source may be better than another.


Ethanol; corn; farming practices; land use; agriculture; biofuel; renewable energy; government subsidies; octane; sustainability; oil; gasoline

Topical Areas

Policy issues, Regulatory issues

Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Intimate Debate



Subject Headings

Agriculture  |   Biotechnology  |   Environmental Science  |   Natural Resource Management  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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