By Michelle Hardy
The media is abuzz with forecasts of skyrocketing food prices and subsequently rising global poverty. International food costs are increasing because of commodity shortages – mainly cereal grains like wheat and corn. There’s a major lesson hidden in this crisis, so it’s important to know exactly how the US is helping these prices go up.
Tumultuous weather patterns and oil prices account for some of these commodity shortages, but a major determinant of current corn supply is ethanol production. Fuel corn is more lucrative than edible corn; farmers are increasingly choosing to plant for cars rather than humans, despite the ridiculous energy deficit this fuel crop creates.
In result, human fuel will be harder to come by. The USDA predicts consumer food prices will rise up to 4 percent over the course of 2011 and remain high in 2012, largely because of corn.
Although corn-infused processed food and corn-fed meat aren’t industries to champion, the pervasiveness of corn in food isn’t something society can erase overnight; at the end of the day, people must be able to afford food during the next few years. As of now, 44 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty due to higher global food prices.
It seems farmers should just reduce ethanol production and plant more edible corn to account for this crisis, but things aren’t that simple. USDA chief economist Joe Glauber told Reuters stubbornly that “the industry has pretty much been built. This isn’t a question of just saying ‘cut it off.’ It’s much more complicated than that.” He explained further that there was little to be done in the short term to force firms to stop making ethanol.
If anyone isn’t frightened by the snowballing ethanol industry, consider how absurd the use of ethanol is in the first place. For one, ethanol has a negative energy balance; it can require up to 57% more energy to grow than it releases in fuel form. The sheer amount of energy inputs from petroleum or coal required to grow ethanol cancels out the benefits of slightly reduced emissions from ethanol.
Also consider the amount of land disrupted to produce this supposedly green fuel. Corn farming pummels the soil with fertilizer, uses petroleum-based inputs, and uses precious water in dry areas of the US. America is the world’s largest corn grower and exporter; a tremendous amount of land was already sacrificed for corn, but that amount will grow rapidly from now on.
The USDA says corn and grain farmers will increase land use as a reaction to high prices by sowing a whopping 9.8 million additional acres in 2011. US corn production will soar to a record-breaking 13.73 billion bushels this year, likely with limited gains in stockpiles due to rising demand. So as ethanol producers snatch up more and more land, edible corn producers will hastily squander more acres as well just to keep up with global demand and high prices.
And the most ironic part of all this? The more viable source of biodiesel would actually be waste. Converting existing byproducts from various industries to fuel would solve many ecological problems at once. In fact, New York is already considering a major energy initiative based on converting wastewater and sewage into fuel. City officials hope to have a contract by 2013.
During a recent lecture at Fordham, New York Times environmental reporter Matt Wald explained, “The idea of using ethanol from plants like corn or palm oil doesn’t make much sense. But waste on the other hand – that’s where the future is.”
Yes, biodiesel from waste is certainly a viable energy option for many parts of the country – especially in New York, a city that produces 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily. But then there’s all that money in producing ethanol…
So the next time you cringe at the grocery store register, or while watching new land being cleared for corn fields, think about your connection to ethanol. Biodiesel may have seemed distant or uninteresting to you just last year, but now, it’s something you’ll have to worry about three times a day.