Burning corn in a famine: The obscenity of the corn ethanol mandate

Price-driven famines threaten to break out around the world, and the U.S. government demands that we burn corn as fuel. That's indecent. Photo: Associated Press

JACKSBORO, Texas, August 25, 2012 — Will the time come when we ask ourselves, “do I serve this wonderful yellow corn for dinner, or do I need to save it for my gas tank?”

In his 1798 essay on the principles of population, English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus concluded that we humans are doomed to endure cycles of growth and massive famine as we outstrip our resources.

Subsequent economist earned their stripes discrediting his methodology, but numerous localized famines around the world have unfolded, more-or-less validating the patterns Malthus described.

Over time, the term, “Malthusian” has come to describe any gloomy scenario in which a population exceeds the means to feed them.

Today we find ourselves once again in a  bit of a Malthusian dilemma. Consider the following news item:

“‘The worst drought in the American Midwest and the highest temperatures in a half-century are poised to trigger an imminent global food crisis,’ scientists at the New England Complex Systems Institute said Monday.

“NECSI has warned for months that misguided food-to-ethanol conversion programs and rampant commodity speculation have created a food price bubble, leading to an inevitable spike in prices by 2013.  

“Now it appears the ‘crop shock’ will arrive even sooner due to drought, unless measures to curb ethanol production and rein in speculators are adopted immediately.

“‘This summer, the American breadbasket has suffered debilitating droughts and high temperatures, leading to soaring corn and wheat prices in anticipation of a poor harvest,’ said NECSI president [Yavni] Bar-Yam.

“‘We are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worse yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring.’”

Bar-Yam went on to say “The immediate impact of the drought should be addressed by  reducing the US government’s mandate for corn to ethanol. Given the possibility of price-driven famines, burning corn for cars is unconscionable.”

This brings us back to Malthusian economics. Are we creating a famine that may be felt world wide by turning the plants that God has provided for us as food into a substance that will inevitably be blown out the exhaust system of our cars?

With the recent drought in America’s corn belt and global food shortages looming, it seems ironic that we’re burning food and creating the situation “in which the population exceeds the means to feed themselves.” It isn’t the Malthusian scenario, strictly speaking, because we haven’t outstripped our food supplies except by declaring food not to be food so that it can be burned as fuel. 

The federal mandate that was instituted during the George W. Bush administration could claim as much as 40 percent of this year’s plummeting corn crop for fuel as this historic drought worsens.

The 2012 law calls for 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol to be combined with gasoline. The expected corn harvest is estimated at 14 billion bushels, but due to the drought, it could be far less.

Politics will determine where the corn ends up. There are calls for the mandate to be lifted for now, but we can’t underestimate the power of the special interests which look out for their own interests, not for ours.

According to Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and the National Corn Growers Association, calls for a temporary suspension of the renewable Fuel Standard are ill-advised.

Mr. Grassley said, “I would suggest that those claiming the sky is falling withhold their call for waiving or repealing the renewable fuel standard, it’s premature action that will not produce the desired results.”

The result that the people of the world are looking at is simply hunger. 

It’s naive to believe there will be no more droughts, but we can hope that next year will bring plenty of rain for everyone. If it doesn’t, though, will we continue the obscenity of burning food while people starve?

It’s been 214 years since Malthus gave the world his grim warning. We’ve avoided Malthusian catastrophe, but we should think carefully about how well we use the natural resources that we have been so blessed to enjoy, and wonder whether our children and grandchildren will live in a world that gives priority to corn on the table, or corn in the fuel tank.


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George Weir

George Weir is a guest writer for Communities @WashingtonTimes.com

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