In January, three U.S. senators – two Democrats, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barack Obama of Illinois, and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar – introduced a bill promoting the use of ethanol. It also mandates the use of more biodiesel and creates tax credits for the production of cellulosic ethanol. They called it the “American Fuels Act of 2007.”
Let’s consider that statement. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the U.S. economy was primarily based on carbohydrates. Horses were the main mode of transportation. They were also a primary work source for plowing and planting. Aside from coal, which was used by the railroads and in some factories, the U.S. economy depended on the ability of draft animals to turn grass and forage into usable toil. America’s farmers were solely focused on producing food and fiber. And while the U.S. was moderately prosperous, it was not a world leader.
Oil changed all that. After the discovery of vast quantities of oil in Texas, Oklahoma, and other locales, America was able to create a modern transportation system, with cars, buses, and airplanes. That oil helped the U.S. become a dominant military power. Humans were freed from the limitations of the carbohydrate economy, which was constrained by the amount of arable land.
Thus while Lugar and his ilk promote ethanol, they are ignoring a pivotal question: should our farms produce food or fuel?
Last September, Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute (a group that promotes “an environmentally sustainable economy”) wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that the amount of grain needed to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank “would feed one person for a full year. If the United States converted its entire grain harvest into ethanol, it would satisfy less than 16 percent of its automotive needs.” Brown said the ongoing ethanol boom in the U.S. was “setting the stage for an epic competition. In a narrow sense, it is one between the world’s supermarkets and its service stations.” More broadly, “it is a battle between the world’s 800 million automobile owners, who want to maintain their mobility, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people, who simply want to survive.”
Using food to make fuel bothers many analysts, and whether their affiliation is liberal or conservative doesn’t seem to matter. Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., has concerns that are remarkably similar to Brown’s. A few days after Brown’s piece appeared in the Post, Avery published a paper showing that ethanol simply cannot provide enough fuel to make a significant difference in America’s consumption. And like Brown, he laid bare the essential question: food or fuel?
“The real conflict over cropland in the 21st century,” wrote Avery, “will set people’s desire for biofuels against their altruistic desire that all the children on the planet be well-nourished.” He continued, “The world’s total cropland resources seem totally inadequate to the vast size of the energy challenge. We would effectively be burning food as auto fuel in a world that is not fully well-fed now, and whose food demand will more than double in the next 40 years.” Avery says that even if the U.S. adopted biofuels as the antidote for imported crude oil, “It would take more than 546 million acres of U.S. farmland to replace all of our current gasoline use with corn ethanol.” That’s a huge area, especially considering that the total amount of American cropland covers about 440 million acres.
Thus, while farmers and Big Agriculture prefer to cast the use of ethanol in terms of national security, foreign oil, and rural development, the larger issue is a moral one: will we use our precious farmland to grow food, or will we subsidize the growth of an industry that turns food into a commodity – motor fuel – of which we already have an abundant supply? The answer should be obvious.
Can U.S. farmers keep filling the nation's bellies as they scramble to fuel its cars?
Corn Hits a 10-Year High
For most of the past five years, steadily rising ethanol demand has had little effect on corn prices. Bolstered by generous subsidies, corn farmers churned out more than enough product to satisfy demand from ethanol plants while holding prices steady.
Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat and poultry processor, has already signaled that a similar scenario might be on the way now. "I believe the American consumer is going to have to pay more for protein," Tyson CEO Richard L. Bond recently told investors. "Quite frankly, the American consumer is making a choice here ... either corn for feed or corn for fuel."
The Boom Heard 'Round the World
While the industrial-food system is easy to criticize, it's important to recognize that vast numbers of people rely on it for cheap sustenance. For more than 30 years, real growth in average wages has, at best, floundered. According to University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin's Contours of Descent: The Economic Consequences of Clinton, Bush, and Greenspan, real hourly wages peaked at $15.73 in 1973 and by 2000 stood at $14.15 (in 2001 dollars). And that was after a rare three-year growth spurt provoked by the stock-market bubble; since 2000, wages have essentially flatlined.
Not surprisingly, tens of millions face what the USDA calls "food insecurity," which the agency defines as the condition of households being "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food."
Deforestation, falling water tables—these are hardly the hallmarks of a fuel source that can reasonably be called "renewable," much less an agriculture strategy designed to maintain food-production capacity. And rising prices for food commodities, without other social reforms, will only translate to more misery for the global south.
Covering Every Inch
Here in the United States, cellulosic ethanol, which could theoretically utilize non-food crops such as switchgrass, is often held up as the panacea for a truly green biofuel that needn't have much effect on food prices.
Mano a Monocrop
Given the environmentally ruinous nature of corn production, the economist Collins presents an odd plan for clean energy.
Tom Philpott, posted on Grist, December 13, 2006