Let Them Burn Ethanol

American grocery stores are starting to introduce food rationing.  Wal Mart is restricting the amount of rice customers can buy.  In Mexico and Yemen, in Egypt and Indonesia, the poor are taking to the streets to protest massive rise in food prices as well as shortages.  A short distance from our shores, the troubled nation of Haiti is in crisis again; Haitians, dependent on U.S. grain imports, have seen those dry up and have been reduced to eating cakes of dirt.

How did this come about?  Because on top of rises in energy prices and some changes in the diets of developing world countries, we are burning a large portion of the world’s food crop in our cars’ fuel tanks, in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curing our "addiction to oil."

Last year, Congress, with the backing of the President, increased the amount of ethanol American refineries are required to add to our gasoline, with the aim of doubling that amount by 2015.  With other ethanol manufacturing methods not ready for prime time — and burdensome trade barriers keeping out sugar cane ethanol imports — that means doubling the domestic production of ethanol from corn.

That in turn means a significant reduction in the amount of corn available to eat.  The U.S. is the world’s largest corn supplier, but the World Bank found recently that not a single grain of the increase in corn plantings since 2004 had filled anybody’s stomach.  It had all gone to ethanol.

How did this happen?  For years, ethanol was a relatively minor beneficiary of farm subsidies and small mandates that kept giant agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland in profit.  Then, as the mania surrounding global warming grew in recent years, ethanol came to be seen as a great opportunity for reducing carbon emissions from our vehicles.

Many environmental organizations — to their credit — recognized the problem of burning food as fuel, but at the same time they made decarbonization the sine qua non of energy policy.

The result was a perfect Washington storm: Agribusiness lobbying and environmentalist advocacy about "energy independence" came together to push ethanol front and center, from where it has gathered momentum and gained strong champions.

Al Gore, campaigning for Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar in 2006, defended ethanol with the question, "What is so complicated about choosing fuel that comes from Minnesota farmers rather than from the Middle East?"

Quite a lot, as it turns out, Al.  The former Vice President has been a leading ethanol supporter since the 1970s.  In 1994 he cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate that stopped a cut in ethanol subsidies.  In 1999 he called ethanol "environmentally friendly" when boasting of the Clinton/Gore administration’s plans to triple its use by 2010.

Recently, as corn ethanol’s problems have become apparent, Gore has switched to promoting cellulosic ethanol, which would make ethanol from switchgrass and the like, rather than corn, but he cannot escape responsibility for promoting corn ethanol to the point where it became the favorite fuel of politicians chasing the support of farm interests.

We’ve been down this road before.  As I detail in my book, The Really Inconvenient Truths, time and again environmentalists have latched on to one issue and one solution, talked it up to the extent that opposition to their stance was met with moral opprobrium, and then moved on to another issue as the humanitarian or environmental consequences of their campaigns became apparent.  Yet the dire effects remain.

We see it with DDT, which they banned to save birds but which has led to the deaths of millions in Africa.

We see it with the Endangered Species Act, which has led to a practice known as "shoot, shovel and shut up" as landowners kill critters listed as endangered to keep the Feds from taking control of their land.

We see it every summer with wildfires, as we strive to deal with decades’ worth of overgrowth following environmentalists’ legal victories over the loggers who used to thin out the forests and keep them healthy.

We are seeing it now with growing hunger as a result of biofuels policy.

Yet even these grim scenarios would pale compared to what awaits us if the environmentalists their way on global warming.  The humanitarian and environmental consequences of making energy more expensive will be felt not just in food prices but in job losses and increased poverty.

Recession and global starvation are hardly the recipes for a peaceful world.  Starving Parisians hated Queen Marie Antoinette for her alleged utterance, "Let them eat cake."  Today’s equivalent cry from Capitol Hill is "Let them burn ethanol."  Congressional leaders would do well to keep in mind what happened to Marie Antoinette.