Ethanol’s potential far outweighed by drawbacks

Far away from the abundance of sloppy food that is EVK and the diner’s delight that is Parkside, the world is experiencing a hunger crisis.

According to the World Bank, although food prices have fallen from their peak in 2008, major grain prices remain high. Maize is 50 percent more expensive than its average price between 2003 and 2006, while rice prices are 100 percent higher. In the last two years, 130-155 million people lived in poverty due to these prices. These people can now be added to the 1.1 billion people who were living on less than $1 a day and the 923 million who were undernourished before the crisis hit.

A policy often touted by the United States as a “green initiative” is actually contributing to the problem. Our government actively encourages farmers to convert much of our corn harvest (60-70 percent of the world’s total) to ethanol. Unfortunately, not only does this hurt the environment, it also drives up food prices globally and exacerbates hunger in third world countries (something disputed by the US corn lobby, but agreed upon by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International Food Policy Research Institute, among others).

In 2006, 14 percent of our corn was converted to ethanol. In 2008, it was 18 percent — this increase substantially affected world food prices. But this pales in comparison to what is coming: the 2007 US Energy Independence and Security Act calls for the current ethanol capacity of 6.5 billion gallons per year to increase to 36 billion gallons by 2022. If a 28 percent increase in our ethanol production can cause so much harm worldwide, imagine the ramifications of a 454 percent increase.

Now, maybe this mandated increase could be seen as reasonable if it could help stop global warming, saving lives in the process. However, it turns out that the process of creating corn ethanol emits more carbon into the atmosphere than is saved by putting it in cars and trucks. One study has found that it would take 167 years of ethanol use just to “pay back” the carbon emitted as a result of the deforestation its production causes. In addition, US tariffs keep out Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, whose production is up to eight times less harmful to the environment.

Ethanol’s potential is also limited — even if we switched our entire grain crop to ethanol, it would only replace 20 percent of our gasoline consumption.

In addition, America’s biofuels policy helped kill, at least for now, the Doha Development Round trade talks intended to give poor countries new chances to grow. Thus, not only are we increasing food prices, but we are hurting the poor’s opportunities to make money to buy that expensive food. Meanwhile, we are stunting our own growth by limiting free trade during our worst economic recession in 80 years.

The biofuels policy hurts the environment and world trade and increases world hunger — so why do we have it? More ethanol production means higher corn prices, which mean higher profits for agribusiness owners. These “farmers,” whose enormous corporations are in the process of crowding out the small family farms that Americans, for some reason, love to romanticize, have enormous political power because they control Iowa, where the first presidential primaries are.

In August, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley got the White House to promise that the ethanol tariff would remain in place in exchange for his support on the health care bill.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably asking yourself one of two questions — “Why should I care?” or “What can I do?”

You should care because our government is causing starvation worldwide and passing the buck on global warming just to enrich a small domestic group. You should care because starvation is the beginning of a story as often as it is the end of it — terrorism, civil wars and refugees are international security problems that directly threaten all of us and are frequently related to food shortages. And you should care because ethanol subsidies — the heart of America’s biofuel policy — cost the country a net $661 million each year.

Unfortunately, this ugly policy will be very hard to change because corn farmers care much more about its continuation than its opponents care about its termination. The only hope is in numbers — there are far more people who would benefit from the redirection of our corn crop back to food (for example, everyone in the world who isn’t a corn farmer) than there are beneficiaries of the status quo.

So spread the word. Write to your congressperson or senator. Tell your parents or your friends.

Most important, don’t participate in the system. Do not buy an ethanol-fueled car — the grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed someone for a year, according to Foreign Policy Magazine.

The ethanol movement began as a well-intentioned effort to help the environment. However, now it is clear that it helps a very small group at a heavy price to the world’s poor, the environment and the US taxpayer. It is time for farmers to start leaving corn on the cob again.

Daniel Charnoff is a junior majoring in international relations (global business).