The link be­tween ethanol and the food cri­sis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - ED FEUL­NER

“What could pos­si­bly go wrong?” That’s what mem­bers of Congress prob­a­bly thought when they started shov­el­ing big­ger sub­si­dies at ethanol pro­duc­ers. Now, with food ri­ots erupt­ing in some parts of the world, we have our an­swer: a lot.

Other fac­tors — a weak dol­lar, high en­ergy costs, low crop yields in places such as Aus­tralia — have played a role in this cri­sis. But divert­ing food to fuel is clearly a con­trib­u­tor and it ex­ac­er­bates the sit­u­a­tion.

How se­ri­ous is the prob­lem? Ac­cord­ing to U.N. Sec­re­tary­Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon, with­out emer­gency in­ter­ven­tion, “we risk again the specter of wide­spread hunger, mal­nu­tri­tion and so­cial un­rest on an un­prece­dented scale.” The world needs more food — es­pe­cially corn, large amounts of which are used for fuel.

Peo­ple, of course, con­sume corn, and it’s in nearly ev­ery pro­cessed food we buy. Live­stock, too, feed on corn. Some chick­ens eat 40 pounds of it in a mat­ter of weeks. So a jump in the price drives up prices in just about ev­ery aisle of the su­per­mar­ket. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the U.N. found the mar­ket prices of ce­re­als, dairy pro­duce, meat, sugar and oils rose 57 per­cent from March 2007 to March 2008.

There should be enough corn to go around. “Pro­duc­ers plan to plant 86 mil­lion acres of corn this year,” the U.S. Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment re­ported in March. “While 7.6 mil­lion acres less than 2007, this would still be the sec­ond-largest area since 1949.”

But too lit­tle of that corn is used as food. A quar­ter of Amer­i­can corn is turned into ethanol, and that is set to rise. Last year the fed­eral gov­ern­ment man­dated that ethanol pro­duc­tion grow five­fold by 2022.

Sen­si­bly, some law­mak­ers are mov­ing to sus­pend that law, or even re­peal it and the sub­si­dies al­to­gether. We can’t af­ford to keep burn­ing so much corn while peo­ple go hun­gry.

The food cri­sis should sur­prise no one. When 25 per­cent of a sta­ple crop is taken off the ta­ble, short­ages re­sult. Just last year, two eco­nomics pro­fes­sors pre­dicted the cur­rent food short­ages.

“By putting pres­sure on global sup­plies of ed­i­ble crops, the surge in ethanol pro­duc­tion will trans­late into higher prices for both pro­cessed and sta­ple foods around the world,” C. Ford Runge and Ben­jamin Se­nauer wrote in For­eign Af­fairs. “Bio­fu­els have tied oil and food prices to­gether in ways that could pro­foundly up­set the re­la­tion­ships be­tween food pro­duc­ers, con­sumers, and na­tions in the years ahead, with po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing im­pli­ca­tions for both global poverty and food se­cu­rity.”

Worse, at least one prom­i­nent sci­en­tist wor­ries that ethanol pro­duc­tion could hurt the en­vi­ron­ment it is sup­posed to pro­tect. “Bio­fuel from corn doesn’t seem very ben­e­fi­cial when you con­sider its full en­vi­ron­men­tal costs,” ac­cord­ing to Dr. William Lau­rance, a sci­en­tist with the Smith­so­nian Trop­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute.

The $11 bil­lion a year Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers spend to sub­si­dize corn pro­duc­ers “is hav­ing some sur­pris­ing global con­se­quences,” he says. That in­cludes Ama­zon forests be­ing clear cut so farm­ers can plant soy­beans.

Un­for­tu­nately, the corn­field isn’t the only place where fed­eral pol­icy causes trou­bles. Our coun­try also is see­ing a short­age of wheat — partly be­cause many wheat farm­ers have switched to corn, and partly be­cause Wash­ing­ton pays them whether they grow wheat or not.

In 1996, law­mak­ers passed “leg­is­la­tion al­low­ing wheat grow­ers for the first time to switch to other crops and still col­lect gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies. The re­sult is that farm­ers re­ceived fed­eral wheat pay­ments last year on 15 mil­lion acres more than were planted,” The Wash­ing­ton Post re­cently re­ported.

Corn is the an­swer to our food prob­lems, not our fuel prob­lems. The World Bank es­ti­mates the amount of corn needed to fill the gas tank of an SUV is enough to feed one per­son for an en­tire year. That’s a trade­off the world can no longer af­ford.

Ed Feul­ner is pres­i­dent of The Her­itage Foun­da­tion (her­itage.org).

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