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Shucking the ethanol illusion

Associated Press (2006)
Using corn to make ethanol has sent food prices higher, and scientists question the environmental benefits.

Associated Press (2006) Using corn to make ethanol has sent food prices higher, and scientists question the environmental benefits.

The feel-good fuel of the 21st century — ethanol — is losing its green luster. Inflation is out of control. World hunger is a growing concern once again. And in both cases, one of the main culprits is ethanol production. Even scientists now say ethanol does more harm than good in reducing global warming gases.

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To be more precise, tax-subsidized ethanol production from corn is the villain. As with many things Congress does, the implications of diverting so much of the nation's corn crop to ethanol production weren't fully thought out. That policy cast a stone into the global economic pond, and the ripples are still being felt.

Food and energy prices are soaring for other reasons, too, though taking so much corn out of the food supply isn't the least of them. People both use corn for their food products and feed it to livestock. When corn is scarce, they turn to other grains for feed, including wheat. So the doubling of wheat prices in the past year traces back to ethanol.

Of course, weather patterns and the high cost of petroleum products, from fuel to fertilizer, contribute to food inflation. But eliminating 4 percent of the world's grain production as the United States has done by diverting corn to ethanol production has an impact on market prices.

It's one thing for Americans to pay more for a slice of pizza. For more vulnerable inhabitants in subsistence economies, a rise in food prices threatens their very ability to feed themselves properly. What have we gained with biofuels if the price is widespread starvation?

Increased ethanol production in the United States won't really stem our dependence on foreign oil, anyway. Ethanol supplies aren't widely available to American motorists, and without huge tax subsidies the fuel wouldn't be competitively priced. Now scientific studies have even cast doubt on ethanol's environmental credentials, finding its use might actually generate more greenhouse gases.

It is time for Congress to slow down the corn-based ethanol gravy train. If increased production comes at the expense of adequate nutrition for poor nations and the stability of the world economy, it will hardly be worth it.

Shucking the ethanol illusion 02/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 8:58am]
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