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Lecture committee’s funding should shift in accordance with gov’t proposal

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 15, 2011 7:20 AM

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Breadbasket or gas station?

Iowa’s mythic role as the former would intimate that our job is to provide food for the country’s population, not to power the country’s vehicles. And while biofuels are a profitable product of our agricultural abundance, they are highly contested for a reason.

Ethanol, though it accounts for 58 percent of corn sales in Iowa, is in the sights of national lawmakers because of its continued subsidization. Though subsidies profit Iowa farmers in the short-term, especially given the rising percentages of ethanol allowed in gasoline mixtures, it is highly destructive to the food industry in the long term: Using our high-quality farmland to raise ethanol-grade corn (not to mention livestock feed) underutilizes it and takes away from the national 72.7 million acres of corn that should be used to feed the country. If we’re going to take an honest look at world hunger and a sustainable future, we must be willing to reconsider Iowa’s codependent love affair with ethanol.

In 2009, ethanol accounted for roughly 7.8 percent of American car fuel. And in 2005, according to Ethanol.org, the production of ethanol nationwide accounted for 150,000 jobs and raked in $32 billion — and that number can only have grown. While we laud attempts to provide clean energy and reduce dependence on foreign crude, increasing crop production of ethanol-grade corn is not the way to do it.

Furthermore, if the industry appears to be so profitable, why is the federal government continually awarding Iowa ethanol producers nearly $6 billion a year in subsidies?

Calculations by Ethanol.org suggest that for each barrel of ethanol produced, “1.2 barrels of petroleum are displaced at the refinery.” But a gallon of gasoline may contain, at maximum, 15 percent ethanol, and this fuel is largely used to power bulky American cars that average 20.4 mpg.

This is making slow, costly gains, albeit utilizing a source of renewable energy that is preferable to increased consumption of oil — but as Francis Thicke, 2010 state secretary of Agriculture candidate, noted, increasing average fuel efficiency by just 1 mile per gallon would save as much gas as using ethanol. (Currently, no widely available vehicles run solely on biofuels.)

Not only does Congress throw billions at Iowa farmers to continue funding this practice and to appease agribusiness lobbyists, the undue amount of corn being grown to create ethanol is having worrisome side effects on food costs.

“The problem is complex, so it is hard to come up with sweeping statements like biofuels are good or bad,” Olivier Dubois of the Food and Agriculture Organization told the New York Times earlier this month. He added, “[W]hat is certain is that biofuels are playing a role” in raising food prices.

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, disagrees. (As an elected state official, it would be political suicide not to.) “It hasn’t been that we’re taking anything out of the food chain. We simply have increased the productive capacity of corn,” he said to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on April 8. He said, “Biofuels is — and will continue to be — our most important strategy for reducing dependence on imported oil.”

Food prices across the globe have been increasing as populations inflate and turmoil erupts in political and environmental spheres. But what does Iowa have to do with the price of maize in Mozambique? According to an estimate by the World Bank, some 44 million people have sunk below the poverty line in less than a year as a direct result of the increased price of corn.

“The U.S. government should abolish all subsidies and mandates for biofuel derived from resources that could be used for food production,” Per Pinstrup-Andersen, 2001 World Food Prize winner, told the Des Moines Register April 9, detailing how America could lessen food prices worldwide.

Thicke agrees, noting that the nearly $6 billion subsidizes an industry that can now prop itself up. “I think we have gone way too far in subsidizing ethanol,” he told the Editorial Board. “It’s not necessary anymore … So much of Iowa’s marketplace runs on ethanol now.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization (a U.N. body) found this month that its Food Price Index has reached a 21-year high. The price of corn alone jumped 73 percent in the U.S. last year on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, prompted by “an increase in the use of corn for biofuel production in the U.S.A.,” according to World Food Program USA.

“Aside from the disastrous economic investment the ethanol industry has been, we should consider the environmental problems ethanol brings with it,” Thicke wrote in an e-mail. He stated that for one gallon of corn-based ethanol, about two gallons of soil are eroded.

Thus, the production of ethanol is not tenable long-term, nor is it any longer an industry requiring government subsidies. It artificially raises food prices worldwide and makes minimal decreases in the importation of foreign oil. We have too many ethanol-producing plants and not enough corn to ever satisfy the biofuels industry. It is time for Iowa to put people before profit, and take a critical second look at Iowa’s biggest breadwinner.

Questioning ethanol may be political suicide, but it is increasingly necessary.


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