Science and Politics: Ethanol and Food

Demand for ethanol is pushing up the price of corn: Some poor countries are facing food shortages.
Demand for ethanol is pushing up the price of corn: Some poor countries are facing food shortages.Courtesy swankslot

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. Previous entries here, here, here, here and here.)

In 2005, Congress passed a law requiring that set levels of renewable fuels, such as ethanol, be blended into gasoline, with the amount rising every year. Ethanol is usually made from corn, and increasing the demand for ethanol has pushed up the price of food.

(We have touched on this topic a time or two before. Researchers are working on making ethanol from non-food sources.)

In August, the state of Texas asked the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver from the requirements, claiming that higher corn prices were making cattle farming unprofitable. And, ironically, making ethanol production unprofitable, too. The EPA reused.

Some bloggers argue that this refusal puts upward pressure on food prices—a fact that is beginning to hurt poor people the world over. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has argued for a “safety-valve” that would let refiners miss their targets if food prices rise too high.

Subsidies and tariffs also keep the price of ethanol artificially high. If these wee dropped, the incentives to turn corn into fuel would lessen, and food prices would stabilize.

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