The babble about ethanol has become babel. You've got the political commentators riffing on excessive subsidy-gifting, the consumer-awareness activists complaining about fuel prices, the car fiends pointing out the fuel inefficiencies, the environmentalists raging about how much water gets wasted in production, and the economists noting the damage wrought by tariffs, quotas, and price guarantees. Even the Christian Scientists have ethanol on the mind.   

But what does ethanol mean for the food system?  

Well, for starters, as Jeff Goodell (Rolling Stone) points out in one of the best ethanol articles I've read to date, current ethanol production is only meeting 3.5 percent of our gasoline needs, but it's taking up 20 percent of our cornfields. Those of us who thought the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico created by fertilizer runoff was already bad are headed for a nasty surprise as Midwestern farmers fall over themselves spraying to meet demand. If ethanol is really where our fuel is going to come from, we're going to need a lot more corn than we're already making, and that'll take more than serial monocropping (let's keep making that dead zone bigger!). Phil Clapp of the National Environmental Trust has said, "Producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol a year [the Bush administration's 2017 goal, which represents a five-fold increase in current production] would require putting an additional...area the size of Kansas and Iowa...into corn production." 

Competition for grain between ethanol plants and pork, beef and chicken producers has nearly doubled corn prices in the past two years. Okay, so Tyson has to pay $300 million more in feed this year--fine, they can afford it. An Iowa State University study concluded that ethanol has cost Americans an additional $14 billion in higher food prices. But Mexicans, many of whose diet is still 40 percent dependent on corn tortillas, have been rioting--or going hungry. All so we can fill the tanks of our SUVs? One fill-up requires the distillation of 450 pounds of corn, enough calories, Goodell calculates, to feed one person for a year.  

Yes, the buzz has escalated into clamor, but it's not time to shut up yet. 

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Ethanol's effect on food
Current ethanol production is only meeting 3.5 percent of our gasoline needs, but it's taking up 20 percent of our cornfields.