Global Rise in Food Prices: Why Grain-Based Ethanol Really Stinks

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The clue to the dilemma of the recent rise in worldwide food prices can be found in the title of this article. You see, higher food prices aren’t simply a problem here in America; they are a concern around the globe. And unfortunately, they are leading to some disastrous effects in terms of global health and well-being.

During his presidency from 2001-2009, George W. Bush allocated millions of taxpayer dollars toward the funding of new corn-based ethanol programs in an effort to help wean America off volatile sources of foreign oil. While some argue that ethanol (a.k.a. E-85, a formulation of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) is a viable renewable energy source to that end, recent studies have concluded that nearly as much carbon dioxide is emitted during ethanol production and delivery as per traditional fossil fuel production.

Because of this negatively skewed energy-environment interplay, corn-based ethanol in and of itself is not a reliable long-term replacement for oil. Add to the conundrum the fact that the price of corn is rising rapidly, which also forces the myriad of corn-based consumer goods upward. It’s a perfect recipe for socioeconomic instability.

Brazil is another interesting case in biofuels’ capacity to raise the price of food. Here in America, virtually every food we consume has copious amounts of either high fructose corn syrup or sugar. The largest producer of sugar worldwide, Brazil invests heavily in sugar-based ethanol. Weaning off oil is a good thing; but the consequences have unfortunately come in the form of a two-fold increase in the price of sugar. Thus, the United States pays more for sugar imports, and the price of all foods we purchase that have sugar in them (that’s virtually everything) rises also in response to market forces.

Crop displacement is another culprit vis-a-vis the rise in global food prices. In recent years, food crops have been displaced by grain fields grown specifically for the production of ethanol. When you have decreasing supply of food with increased worldwide demand, it becomes a matter of simple economics. The same applies to the skyrocketing gasoline prices we see today; they are simply a reflection of higher worldwide demand for oil coupled with decreasing supply.

The effects of crop displacement are being felt the world over as more food is being used for cars rather than people. Food shortages are becoming more common. In point of fact, the grain required to fill the tank of a 25-gallon SUV with ethanol will feed one person for an entire year.

Note the astounding inefficiency and the amount of grain required to fill an average SUV only once. If the grain that went into the production of that one tank of ethanol were used as food, it would feed one person for an entire year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that using food as fuel not only results in increased hunger and decreased accessibility of food for our world’s poorest, but it also causes the price of agricultural commodities to skyrocket around the globe.

In light of this fundamental dichotomy, emphasis should be placed on more energy-efficient and eco-friendly renewable energy production (such as hydrogen or cellulosic ethanol) that does not place an undue burden on global citizens and our world economy.


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