Posts Tagged ‘ethanol’

That seems to be the message from two stories published today, one on each side of the Atlantic.

In a news analysis, the New York Times notes that:

a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people.  Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices.

Officials from both the UN and the World Bank have recently voiced concerns about the impact of biofuels on the price of food.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Independent reports that, “the production of biofuel is devastating huge swathes of the world’s environment” and asks why the UK government wants its citizens to use more of it.

The Independent’s Cahal Milmo also mentions the impact that biofuel production is having on world food prices.  But of equal concern is the environmental damage that careless encouragement of biofuels can cause.  British campaigners, reports Milmo, this week

condemned as “disastrous” the absence of any standards requiring producers to prove their biofuel is not the product of highly damaging agricultural practices responsible for destroying rainforests, peatlands and wildlife-rich savannahs or grasslands from Indonesia to sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.

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It’s a slightly perverse argument but we’re not the only ones to be making the connection between the recent rise in US corn prices and the good that might do us all.

As followers of Michael Pollan know well, major subsidies to US corn producers have made processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup much cheaper to buy than fresh fruits and vegetables.  And that has led a great many people on limited incomes to make choices that, while economically smart in the short term, have terrible health consequences over time.

But with corn prices soaring (thanks in part to growing demand for ethanol, the cost of petroleum-derived fertilizers and gasoline for transportation), it’s harder for manufacturers of highly-processed foods to low-ball their not-so-nutritious creations and easier for people looking to sell locally-produced, organically raised produce and meats to compete on price.

The same thought has apparently struck the New York Time’s Kim Severson, who wrote yesterday:

“if American staples like soda, fast-food hamburgers and frozen dinners don’t seem like such a bargain anymore, the American eating public might turn its attention to ingredients like local fruits and vegetables, and milk and meat from animals that eat grass. It turns out that those foods, already favorites of the critics of industrial food, have also dodged recent price increases.”

Kudos to Severson for calling up Pollan himself for a quote: “higher food prices,” he suggests, “level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”

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Since long before Joni Mitchell lamented how we’d paved over our paradises with parking lots, critics have regretted the degree to which human development comes at the expense of the natural landscape.

But we live in interesting times and one aspect of them is the renewed power that agriculture has in the economic balance of things. It has Allison Arieff in the NY Times joking that “housing developments may need to be razed to clear the way for more farmland.”

It’s an attractive notion. But too bad that the impetus for this change is the ethanol boom. As James J. Cramer points out in the other story referenced above:

Ethanol is an entirely inefficient method of producing energy, by some estimates consuming almost as much as it generates. It’s a fuel no one really wants. It’s difficult to transport because of its corrosive nature. And subsidizing it is causing runaway food costs and a nasty bout of inflation that’s hitting the poor hardest.

And that’s not to mention the environmental downside of running a vast proportion a nation’s farms as intensive, inorganic-chemical-supported mono-cultures.

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