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Ethanol Madness
By Kathy Hare

It sounded like a good idea at the time. The solution to our dependence on foreign oil: grow crops - convert them to ethanol - problem solved! And there was an added bonus. Ethanol would be a cleaner fuel, helping to reduce greenhouse gases. “Not so fast,” some nay-saying scientists warned, the ethanol solution could create more problems than it solves. But as oil prices climbed the scientists were ignored, because America needed a quick-fix for its energy woes. So in 2005 Congress began subsidizing the production of ethanol, to the tune of $.51 per gallon.

Now, according to agricultural economist Lester Brown, “The lines between the food and the energy economy are becoming blurred,” and taxpayers are subsidizing a rise in their own food prices. Plus, there is an ongoing debate in the scientific community as to whether ethanol actually reduces carbon emissions. Ethanol proponents predicted a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions would occur for every gallon of gasoline replaced by corn ethanol. But a report in the February 29 issue of Science warns that as grassland and forest are converted into farmland to replace the grain needed for biofuels, "emissions will approximately double during the first 30 years of implementation and create an emission increase that would take more than 160 years to recoup."

Congress also overlooked a number of other factors. Six billion people depend on the millions of acres already under cultivation for food. Today, each and every one of us directly or indirectly receives the majority of our calories from four crops: wheat, corn, soybean and rice.

There’s an old saying, “Buy land, they're not making any more of it.” True enough. Certainly all of the best agricultural land in this country is already under cultivation or supporting rooftops.

Our planet could never support six billion hunter-gatherers. Human populations only increased after the advent of agriculture over 10,000 years ago. And without the vast expanse of arable land in the United States and advancements in agricultural technologies over the last 60 years, it would be impossible to support the current world population. As Americans, we should be proud of our agricultural industry, but we must also be conscious of the national and international consequences of reducing our food supply to produce ethanol. The United States is indeed the breadbasket of the world. Don’t believe me? Well here are the facts straight from the USDA. American farmers produce 42 percent of the world’s corn, 31 percent of the wheat crop, and are the largest supplier of soybeans.

Look at the domino effect caused by converting corn to ethanol. Japan imports 649 million bushels of corn from the United States annually; Mexico, Canada, Taiwan Egypt and Columbia are also major importers. Therefore as American farmers convert fields to grow “cornanol,” less corn, soybeans and wheat are available for human consumption, or to feed five billion hoofed animals and 16 billion domestic birds worldwide. When countries cannot import grain from us, they are forced to turn marginal lands into farms. Large swaths of the Amazon Rainforest are already being converted to soybean fields to feed South American livestock.

Converting acres from food to fuel production has an immediate effect on food prices, which we are already experiencing. Since 2003, the price to produce a ton of wheat flour has risen from $8.68 to $20.59. A USDA report entitled “Amber Waves” said the increase was due to rising gas prices, strong world economic growth, especially in China and India, and the production of ethanol in the United States. In 2007 ethanol produced from corn replaced only 3.5 percent of our gasoline supply, but acres of wheat and soy were sacrificed to create that small percentage of energy. Meat, milk and egg prices continue to rise in response to higher feed costs. By 2017, it is projected corn ethanol will replace 31 percent of our gasoline supply. Would anyone like to predict how much a loaf of bread will cost then?

Growing food for fuel is a great strategy until you study the entire equation. We have only experienced higher prices - so far. In undeveloped countries, such as Pakistan, wheat shortages have already occurred; soldiers are now posted to guard their limited grain supply. Higher food prices worldwide, food shortages, and the destruction of vast amounts of forests and grasslands, the natural filters of greenhouse gases, are costs Congress should have considered before subsidizing the ethanol madness.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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