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Published: Saturday, 5/10/2008

Food fights

WORLD food prices have risen 83 percent over the past three years, and food riots could endanger the stability of governments in 33 countries, according to the World Bank.

This burgeoning global catastrophe has many causes. Rising populations and incomes in China and India have increased demand for food. A drought in Australia has sent the price of wheat soaring. Our weak dollar has caused nations that hold lots of them to buy up commodities, which hold their value.

But the two biggest culprits, says the International Food Policy Research Institute, are soaring prices of oil and petroleum-based fertilizer, which increase the cost of growing and transporting food and biofuels. The institute says biofuels are responsible for a quarter to a third of the rise in food prices.

That proportion soon will increase. Congress has ordered a 500 percent increase in biofuels by 2022. The European Union has mandated that 5.75 percent of all gasoline and diesel fuel come from biofuels by 2010.

It is economically, environmentally, and morally insane to use food for fuel.

Corn-based ethanol, the principal U.S. biofuel, is the worst offender. Even with oil priced at more than $110 a barrel, it takes a 51-cent-a-gallon subsidy to make corn ethanol competitive with gasoline. And even with the subsidy, gasoline mixed with ethanol costs drivers 20 to 30 cents a gallon more than regular gasoline, according to the American Automobile Association, because ethanol holds one third less energy per gallon than regular gas.

It takes 29 percent more fossil energy to produce corn ethanol than the ethanol will provide, according to a 2005 study conducted principally by Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel.

Because of its tendency to absorb water, ethanol cannot be transported by metal pipeline, as most gasoline and diesel fuel is, which raises costs to move it.

Ethanol produces more of two of the most dangerous air pollutants - volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides - than gasoline, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Together, those pollutants cause thousands of premature deaths each year.

I'm skeptical about man-made global warming. But if it's a problem, ethanol production exacerbates it. Nitrogen oxides are a greenhouse gas with 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. A study led by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzon estimates that nitrogen oxide emissions from corn production cause up to 50 percent more warming than the substitution of ethanol for gasoline avoids.

The problem worsens if land is cleared to plant fuel crops because nothing soaks up carbon dioxide like trees. Deforestation isn't a major concern in the United States, but it's a big problem in Brazil and Indonesia.

Let's sum up. Corn-based ethanol costs much more than petroleum does, even at present prices. About as much energy is used in its production as it provides. It harms the environment. Diverting food crops to ethanol sends food prices soaring. Why are we doing something so maliciously stupid?

Politics, of course. Corn is grown in Iowa. Iowa is a swing state and holds the nation's first presidential nominating contest.

Corn-based ethanol is a terrible idea, but there is something to be said for ethanol made from sugar cane. Sugar ethanol provides eight times the energy of the fossil fuel required to make it and emits fewer greenhouse gases than corn ethanol. And though sugar is a food, it isn't a staple, so sugar ethanol doesn't exert the upward pressure on food prices that corn ethanol does. Yet we've slapped a 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on sugar ethanol imports from Brazil, the world's largest producer.

We should end all subsidies and mandates for corn ethanol production. If ethanol can't compete with oil when oil is $110 a barrel, it shouldn't be part of our energy mix. And we should repeal the tariff on sugar ethanol.

Last week Sen. John McCain and 23 other GOP senators asked the EPA to loosen congressional ethanol mandates. Sen. Barack Obama indicated he's rethinking his position.

"My top priority is making sure people get enough to eat," Senator Obama said last Sunday. "If it turns out we need to make changes in our ethanol policy to help people get something to eat, that has got to be the step we take."

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.



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