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Andy Posner Headshot

Tortillas, Ethanol, and High Fructose Corn Syrup

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A recent leaked report from the World Bank, stating that 75% of the increase in world food prices is due to biofuels, has served to reignite the food vs. fuel debate. In particular, many are outraged that even as food prices rise corn continues to be used for ethanol rather than tortillas. However, what is lost in all the biofuel controversy is the fact that tremendous amounts of land are devoted neither to fuel nor nutritive food, but rather to non-nutritive uses like tobacco, high fructose corn syrup and cane sugar.

Blame Meat and High Fructose Corn Syrup
The fact of the matter is that if we are really concerned about rising food prices and endemic hunger/poverty, then we'll have to do more than question the biofuel mandates in the United States and the European Union. In truth, we'll have to call into question much of our agricultural system. For instance, we might ask the world's billion or so wealthy citizens to curtail meat consumption, which is not only responsible for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but also uses tremendous amounts of land, water and food--all of which could be devoted to staple crops that the poor need to survive. Or, we might take a second look at the amount of corn that is used for high fructose corn syrup, which does little more than contribute to the American obesity epidemic.

I'm certainly no fan of food-based fuels (in fact, I believe the future of our transportation system is electric), but it strikes me as hypocritical to blame them when there is so much else that could be done. As my good friend, and UCLA Urban Planning PhD student, T.H. Culhane writes on his blog, "the public is being fooled into thinking that there are fields that grow corn and fields that grow tobacco and that corn should be used for food and tobacco should be used for cigarettes, and you violate some sacrosanct principle by using some corn for ethanol. The critics of biofuels never mention that for every acre of corn you plant for fuel you could simultaneously take an acre of tobacco out of production and grow food corn there."

Let's Have an Honest Debate
The bottom line is that if we are to have an honest discussion about biofuels -- which will become more socially and environmentally viable as algae and cellulose replace corn and soybeans --we need to take a look at the entire picture. Before questioning subsidies for ethanol, for instance, why not demand an end to subsidies for tobacco farmers? Just as Americans are blaming high oil prices and the credit crisis for the recent economic downturn, rather than the war in Iraq (which has cost $2 trillion with zero return on investment), critics of biofuels are only seeing a small part of what's behind the rise in food prices. Rethinking the way we grow food, as well as what we grow and why, may be the only way to put the food vs. fuel debate in perspective while at the same time addressing climate change, hunger and obesity. After all, while cheap corn syrup merely makes Coca Cola a more profitable company, subsidies for ethanol at least have the potential to spur innovation leading to advanced biofuels.

Quote Via: ::Solar Cities (Blog)

More on Ethanol and Oil
Will the High Price of Oil Make Americans Skinnier?
"Food vs. Fuel"--A False Debate
End of the Line for Biofuels?
Crop Prices Shutting Down Ethanol Plants--And Plans

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