World food prices have risen 83 percent in the last three years, the World Bank
says. Food riots could endanger stability of governments in 33 countries, estimated
the World Bank's president, Robert Zoellick.
This burgeoning global catastrophe has many causes. Rising populations and incomes
in China and India have increased demand for food. A drought in Australia has sent
the price of wheat soaring. Our weak dollar has caused nations which hold lots of
them to buy up commodities, which hold their value.
But the two biggest culprits, says the International Food Policy Research Institute,
are soaring prices of oil and petroleum based fertilizer, which increase the cost of
growing and transporting food, and biofuels. The IFPR says biofuels are
responsible for a quarter to a third of the rise in food prices.
That proportion soon will increase. Congress has ordered a 500 percent increase in
biofuels by 2022. The European Union has mandated that 5.75 percent of all gasoline
and diesel fuel must come from biofuels by 2010.
It is economically, environmentally, and morally insane to use food for fuel.
Corn-based ethanol, the principal U.S. biofuel, is the worst offender. Even with
oil priced at more than $110 a barrel, it takes a 51 cent a gallon subsidy to make
corn ethanol competitive with gasoline. And even with the subsidy, gasoline mixed
with ethanol costs drivers 20 to 30 cents a gallon more than regular gasoline, the
American Automobile Association said, because ethanol has one third less energy per
gallon than regular gas.
It takes 29 percent more fossil energy to produce corn ethanol than the ethanol will
provide, according to a 2005 study conducted principally by Cornell University
ecologist David Pimentel.
Because of its tendency to absorb water, ethanol cannot be transported by metal
pipeline, as most gasoline and diesel fuel is.
Ethanol increases two of the most dangerous air pollutants volatile organic
compounds (VOC) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by four to seven percent over gasoline,
according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Together, VOC and NOx cause
thousands of premature deaths each year, the EPA said.
I'm skeptical about man-made global warming. But if it's a problem, ethanol
production exacerbates it. NOx is a greenhouse gas with 296 times the warming
potential of carbon dioxide. A study led by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzon estimates
that NOx emissions from corn production cause up to 50 percent more warming than the
substitution of ethanol for gasoline avoids.
The problem worsens if land is cleared for planting of fuel crops, because nothing
soaks up carbon dioxide like trees. Deforestation isn't a concern in the U.S., but
it's a major problem in Brazil and Indonesia.
Let's sum up. Corn-based ethanol costs much more than petroleum does, even at
present prices. About as much energy is used in its production as it provides. It
harms the environment. Diverting food crops to ethanol sends food prices soaring.
Why are we doing something so maliciously stupid?
Politics, of course. Corn is grown in Iowa. Iowa is a swing state, and holds the
nation's first presidential nominating contest.
The favors our politicians do for the corn ethanol producers goes beyond subsidies
and mandates. Corn-based ethanol is a terrible idea, but there is something to be
said for ethanol made from sugar cane. Sugar ethanol provides eight times the
energy of the fossil fuel required to make it, and emits fewer greenhouse gases than
corn ethanol. And though sugar is a food, it isn't a staple, so sugar ethanol
doesn't exert the upward pressure on food prices that corn ethanol does. Yet we've
slapped a 54 cent a gallon tariff on sugar ethanol imports from Brazil, the world's
We should end all subsidies and mandates for corn ethanol production. If ethanol
can't compete with oil when oil is $110 a barrel, it shouldn't be part of our energy
mix. And we should repeal the tariff on sugar ethanol.
Last week Sen. John McCain and 23 other GOP senators asked the EPA to loosen
congressional ethanol mandates. Sen. Barack Obama indicated he's rethinking his
"My top priority is making sure people get enough to eat," Sen. Obama said Sunday.
"If it turns out we need to make changes in our ethanol policy to help people get
something to eat, that has got to be the step we take."