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Using Food for Fuel Leaves Bad Taste in the Mouths of the Hungry

by Joshua Liberles on February 7, 2008

EthanolPost Using Food for Fuel Leaves Bad Taste in the Mouths of the Hungry
While drivers in the West are pumping it up at the gas station, poorer nations are struggling to put food on their plates. Understandably, the Third World is angered by the urgency with which the West is trying to fill gas tanks, not replenish empty bowls.

The United States and other driver-dominant nations are scrambling to find sources of alternative energy, with oil reserves growing scarce and fuel more pricy. Sadly, most governments are foregoing superior choices, like solar and wind power, in favor of ethanol, a fuel source that’s mostly converted from corn in countries like the US.

Although ethanol-based fuel could help to alleviate the world’s fuel crisis, using corn as the source for ethanol is an absurdly inefficient tactic. The amount of energy output from corn is only marginally higher than the energy required to grow, harvest, process, and distribute the ethanol. At least with sugar-based ethanol (as in Brazil) and switch grass technology, there’s a significantly higher energy yield.

Recently, the U.S. government offered farmers incentives to grow more corn crops to compensate for the shortage of traditional fuel.

The US Congress — anxious to do something about America’s energy boondoggle, anything — dished out mandates and heavy taxpayer subsidies to America’s agribusiness lobby to grow more corn for fuel in place of food.

What taxpayers may not realize, however, is that this tactic will drive up the price of food.

Ethanol may not seem as bad a fuel source as oil, but to those in countries where food is scarce, using food as fuel is a threat to their survival. The controversy over growing corn for fuel has ignited conflicts in countries where food is scarce and agriculture is weak.

The Financial Times reports:

Indonesia was yesterday forced to take emergency action to calm street protests over record soyabean prices triggered by US farmers reducing the crop to grow more corn for biofuel. …

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president, was forced to announce measures to boost local soyabean supply.

The move came a day after 10,000 people took to the streets in Jakarta to complain about the rising cost of one of the country’s staple foods.

Controversy over corn crops for ethanol has also sparked protests in Mexico; Venezuela, Morocco, Pakistan and Egypt are also suffering from food shortages.

Between bad harvests, as in Argentina and Brazil, political unrest, rising prices (overall), food scarcity, and a slew of other factors, the outlook for ethanol as a viable alternative to oil isn’t promising.

From the Sri Lanka News:

Those buying commodities for fuel producers are competing directly with food processors for supplies of wheat, corn, soybean, sugarcane, and other key crops. Thus, the price of oil is setting the price of food simply because, if the fuel value of a commodity exceeds its value as food, it will be converted into fuel. The scale of the change is mind boggling…

The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its two billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue.

Despite controversy abroad, growing corn as a fuel crop has yet to spark widespread debate among Westerners who prefer to fill their gas tanks before they feed the hungry.

Photos via flickr by Chad Fust, swanksalot, & Todd Ehlers.

 

Related posts:

  1. Farmers Ditch Conservation, Cash in on Fuel
  2. Biofuels Are Starving Us
  3. Ethanol Production is Spreading the Dead Zone
  4. Consumers Fed Up with Ethanol
  5. The End of Ethanol?
  6. Recent Posts

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