The Magazine

Food Riots Made in the USA

There's a better solution to our energy problems than ethanol. It's called nuclear energy.

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In order to understand the steep rise in world food prices that set off food riots in Haiti last week and toppled the government, you need to travel to Iowa. Right now, we're trying to run our cars on corn ethanol instead of gasoline. As a result, we suddenly find ourselves taking food out of the mouths of children in developing nations. That may sound harsh, but it also happens to be true.

Environmentalists and farm state senators--the great biofuels coalition--of course object. After U.N. officials called for a biofuels moratorium last week, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, called the whole thing "a big joke." "You make ethanol out of corn," he told the New York Times. "I bet if I set a bushel of corn in front of any of those [U.N.] delegates, not one of them would eat it." In a position paper released only a few weeks ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the many environmental organizations that has preached biofuels for decades, continued to insist that, "done right," ethanol can not only replace all our oil by 2050 but also "mitigate dangerous climate change."

Nice try, folks. Maybe U.N. officials don't eat raw corn, but livestock do, and that land could easily be used to grow crops for human consumption. As for the notion that homegrown ethanol can replace more than a tiny fraction of our oil consumption--let alone do anything to ameliorate world carbon emissions--that is an environmental hallucination.

The conceit of biofuels has always been that agricultural resources in this country were unlimited. Haven't we been paying farmers since the 1930s to not grow crops? Why not employ some of that land to help us gain energy independence? If we run out of room, we can always move on to the tropics, right? Let's import ethanol from Brazil.

The Midwest has embraced this vision with a passion. One-third of the American corn crop will be converted to ethanol this year. Farmers are planting corn fencepost to fencepost and bringing new land under cultivation to cash in. The 51-cents-a-gallon federal tax credit assures a market. Ethanol distilleries are sprouting everywhere. Farm towns are revitalizing. The price of farmland is soaring. Presidential nominations turn on who supports ethanol in Iowa. Getting rid of this web of government intervention would now be just about as difficult as repealing farm subsidies in general.

So let's assess the damage. First, although biofuels have been anointed as clean, renewable, and sustainable, there has never been much evidence that they are producing any new energy. Growing crops consumes energy, and since only a small part of the plant--the seed--is distilled into alcohol, there's no guarantee of an energy gain. The most optimistic studies claim only a 25 percent energy profit, and some critics--David Pimentel of Cornell in particular--claim there is actually an energy loss. Suffice it to say, distilling one-third of our corn crop is replacing only 3 percent of our oil consumption.

When the energy independence theory started to falter, environmentalists settled on the notion that at least ethanol would reduce carbon emissions. President George W. Bush reiterated this last week in his address on climate change. If we burn this year's corn crop, so the logic went, we are only putting back atmospheric carbon that was taken out last year. But if we burn coal or oil, we're putting back carbon that has been underground for eons. Therefore biofuels are "carbon neutral."

There is just one question this line of reasoning doesn't answer. What was growing on that acreage before it was turned over to biofuels? If it was another field crop, then the carbon would have remained in the soil or the food supply or any other of the many "carbon sinks" for a long, long time. If it were a forest--particularly a tropical forest, a great natural sink for carbon--then the net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere could be extraordinary.

This year somebody finally asked the question. In February, Science published an article by a team headed by Joseph Fargione of the Nature Conservancy showing that converting virgin land into ethanol cultivation multiplies carbon emissions by a factor of 93. "So for the next 93 years, you're making climate change worse," said Fargione. Another study in the same issue by environmental economist Timothy Searchinger of Princeton found that growing biofuels almost anywhere in the world will result in land being cleared somewhere else for food or fuel.

The Science articles have caused a biofuels meltdown. Time, which only two months ago was celebrating Richard Branson's conversion of one of his Virgin Atlantic jets to biofuels, ran an April cover story, "The Clean Energy Myth." It called biofuels "catastrophic" and "environmentally disastrous."