According to some estimates, ethanol plants will burn up to half of U.S. domestic corn supplies within a few years. Ethanol demand will bring 2007 inventories of corn to their lowest levels since 1995 (a drought year), even though 2006 yielded the third-largest corn crop on record. Iowa may soon become a net corn importer.
The enormous volume of corn required by the ethanol industry is sending shock waves through the food system. (The United States accounts for some 40 percent of the world's total corn production and over half of all corn exports.) In March 2007, corn futures rose to over $4.38 a bushel, the highest level in ten years. Wheat and rice prices have also surged to decade highs, because even as those grains are increasingly being used as substitutes for corn, farmers are planting more acres with corn and fewer acres with other crops.
In the United States and other large economies, the ethanol industry is artificially buoyed by government subsidies, minimum production levels, and tax credits. High oil prices over the past few years have made ethanol naturally competitive, but the U.S. government continues to heavily subsidize corn farmers and ethanol producers. Direct corn subsidies equaled $8.9 billion in 2005. Although these payments will fall in 2006 and 2007 because of high corn prices, they may soon be dwarfed by the panoply of tax credits, grants, and government loans included in energy legislation passed in 2005 and in a pending farm bill designed to support ethanol producers. The federal government already grants ethanol blenders a tax allowance of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol they make, and many states pay out additional subsidies.
In the United States, the growth of the biofuel industry has triggered increases not only in the prices of corn, oilseeds, and other grains but also in the prices of seemingly unrelated crops and products. The use of land to grow corn to feed the ethanol maw is reducing the acreage devoted to other crops. Food processors who use crops such as peas and sweet corn have been forced to pay higher prices to keep their supplies secure -- costs that will eventually be passed on to consumers. Rising feed prices are also hitting the livestock and poultry industries.
In late 2006, the price of tortilla flour in Mexico, which gets 80 percent of its corn imports from the United States, doubled thanks partly to a rise in U.S. corn prices from $2.80 to $4.20 a bushel over the previous several months. (Prices rose even though tortillas are made mainly from Mexican-grown white corn because industrial users of the imported yellow corn, which is used for animal feed and processed foods, started buying the cheaper white variety.) The price surge was exacerbated by speculation and hoarding. With about half of Mexico's 107 million people living in poverty and relying on tortillas as a main source of calories, the public outcry was fierce. In January 2007, Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderón, was forced to cap the prices of corn products.
In a study of global food security we conducted in 2003, we projected that given the rates of economic and population growth, the number of hungry people throughout the world would decline by 23 percent, to about 625 million, by 2025, so long as agricultural productivity improved enough to keep the relative price of food constant. But if, all other things being equal, the prices of staple foods increased because of demand for biofuels, as the IFPRI projections suggest they will, the number of food-insecure people in the world would rise by over 16 million for every percentage increase in the real prices of staple foods. That means that 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025 -- 600 million more than previously predicted.
The world's poorest people already spend 50 to 80 percent of their total household income on food. For the many among them who are landless laborers or rural subsistence farmers, large increases in the prices of staple foods will mean malnutrition and hunger. Some of them will tumble over the edge of subsistence into outright starvation, and many more will die from a multitude of hunger-related diseases.
Although it is important to think of ways to develop renewable energy, one should also carefully examine the eager claims that biofuels are "green." Ethanol and biodiesel are often viewed as environmentally friendly because they are plant-based rather than petroleum-based. In fact, even if the entire corn crop in the United States were used to make ethanol, that fuel would replace only 12 percent of current U.S. gasoline use. Thinking of ethanol as a green alternative to fossil fuels reinforces the chimera of energy independence and of decoupling the interests of the United States from an increasingly troubled Middle East.
Never mind. Go back to what you were doing.