Turning Food Into Fuel While Families Go Hungry

Government Subsidies Encourage Planting Corn for Ethanol

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America produces a lot of food. So much food, in fact, that it is one of the world’s major food exporters, and so much grain and soy that we turn much of it into ethanol to power our cars.

Even excluding the calories that we export or turn into agro-fuels, per-capita caloric availability was 2,700 calories per person in 2007. That’s plenty of food. [Excel link]. No one should be hungry in a country that produces that much food.

But that doesn’t mean that many aren’t going hungry. The latest USDA survey results show that 14.6 percent of the American population — 17 million households — was food-insecure at some point in 2008. “Food insecure” means that the food consumption of one member of the household, or more, was reduced because they lacked for money or other ways to access food. That number shot up from 13 million households in 2007, 11.1 percent of the population.

For one-third of the “food insecure” households, things were much worse: 6.7 million households were “very” food-insecure, up from 4.7 million households in 2007.

Many of those who are just “food insecure” as opposed to “very food insecure” were able to get enough food most of the year by scrounging, going to food pantries or receiving food-stamps, eating a less varied- or less-nutritious diet, and the like. It’s unpleasant that people struggle to get enough to eat, although the United States is not at the level of eastern Africa. There’s plenty of food. It just isn’t distributed properly.

But why should this be the case at all? And what does it have to do with climate change?

Here’s the connection:

The USDA calculates food calories as those that are actually available for people to eat. It doesn’t include those contained in crops diverted for other purposes — like ethanol production. Ethanol production takes up a great deal of U.S. staple-crop production, over 25 percent of the United States’ corn production and a similarly large percentage for soybeans.

This would be one thing if ethanol could be produced efficiently, or if it helped alleviate global climate change, but it doesn’t do either.

The first point, as energy researcher Robert Bryce points out, is that both corn and ethanol production are extremely heavily subsidized. He characterizes corn subsidies as “a handout that has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars during the last three decades, with little to show for it,” and ethanol subsidies as shoveling “yet more federal cash on the single most subsidized crop in America, corn.” From 1995 to 2003, direct subsidies for corn-growers were $37.3 billion dollars.

Subsidies for ethanol production likewise go to corn growers but are tabulated differently, based on different standards. But they represent a growing pile of money. As subsidies researcher Doug Koplow comments,

"The $9.5 billion of subsidies in 2008 increases six-fold to $60 billion by 2022, due both to more production and to a shift to more heavily subsidized cellulosic fuels. In total, between 2008 and 2022, taxpayers will have paid out over $400 billion to the biofuels industry.

"Were Obama proposals for 60 billion gallons per year to be realized, subsidies would top $120 billion per year by the end of the period, for a cumulative subsidy during the 2008-30 period of more than $1 trillion."

Forty percent of that money goes to corn growers. So we see that ethanol production gets a great deal of state support. That’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself. Lots of socially beneficial programs receive state support. The problem is that the state isn’t paying for anything socially beneficial with ethanol.

According to the most recent research from the National Resource Council, even not taking into account climactic damage, ethanol is more polluting than non-ethanol-based fuel. When the total life-cycle of ethanol production is taken into account, it does nothing to diminish anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Indeed, as a team of researchers led by Cornell ecologist David Pimentel argues,

"Manufacture of a liter of 99.5% ethanol uses 46% more fossil energy than it produces and costs $1.05 per liter. The corn feedstock alone requires more than 33% of the total energy input.

"Even if we completely ignore corn ethanol’s negative energy balance and high economic cost, we still find that it is absolutely not feasible to use ethanol as a replacement for U.S. oil."

The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, established under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, sets a goal of 13 billion gallons of biofuel in use by 2010 and 36 billion gallons by 2022, with an increasing percentage shifting from corn-based to advanced biofuels. According to the latest Energy Outlook 2010 from the DOE’s Energy Information Administration, the biofuels supply won’t reach the 2022 target. One DOE study suggests the RFS requirement would outstrip U.S. production by 2015 and that close to a third of biofuels would have to be imported to meet the 2022 target.

So, ethanol production doesn’t reduce our energy needs, it doesn’t alleviate CO2 emissions, it makes food more expensive, and it reduces the food available to the U.S. population. This is strange, because clearly, the U.S. population doesn’t get as much food as it needs.

One could say it’s not the government’s job to supply food to poor people, but then, why is it the government’s job to subsidize ethanol production? It’s a bit of public policy that doesn’t make sense. Money to subsidize food needs so that everyone in the country has enough to eat, or money to subsidize turning corn into motor fuel. Is it even a choice?


See also:

Subsidies Worth Billions at Stake in Battle Over Biofuel Rules

Want to Save the Amazon? Try Looking Closer to Home

Without Functioning Ecosystem, There Is No Economic Growth

Organic Farming Yields Far Better Crop Resistance and Resilience

To Reduce Climate Change, Reduce Consumption

Life Expectancy, Carbon Footprints and a Happy Planet