News & Politics

Fill 'er Up -- With Food

Is turning food into fuel as millions starve to death really the ethical answer to our oil addiction?
I'm not a scientist. I don't even play on television. I got a gentleman's "D" in high school physics and chemistry. So nothing I am about to say is based on good science. OK?

Now, here's what's been bugging me: I can't believe that the best way out of our dependence on oil is by burning food in our cars instead.

I am speaking, of course, of the push for corn-based ethanol. I've been watching as the media parrots the ballyhoo being pumped out by the strange-bedfellows alliance made up of agribusiness, the White House, energy companies and farm-state politicians. To believe the thrust of this PR blitz one would think that corn-based ethanol is the most beneficial thing to hit mankind since penicillin.

But every time I see one of those feel-good stories on the news showing a huge truck dumping tons of golden corn into the hungry maul of a new ethanol plant, I wonder how that jives -- morally and practically -- with the images that too often precede them on the evening news … the pictures of all those bony sub-Saharan babies covered with flies as they slowly starve.

That's what got me wondering the other night, as I watch an Archer Daniels Midland ad, "Growing Energy for Today & Tomorrow." It made me wonder if there had ever been a civilization so decadent that it burned food for fuel while millions starved? Was that wrong of me? Well, if so, it's not my fault, it just popped into my head.

If the ethanol folks have their way and Detroit starts cranking out E85 cars by the millions, how are you going to feel when you have to buy one. How will you feel filling up your car with food-juice during the day and then watching starving children on the evening news as some horse's ass in Washington pontificates about how the world needs to do something about that? How will you feel?

Besides snatching surplus corn from the world's starving, the more corn turned into fuel the less of the stuff that will be available for domestic food use, animal feeds, breakfast cereals, nachos, etc. Prices will go up for anything with corn in it. It's basic economics -- supply and demand. Who will suffer most? American families and the working poor, of course. The price of breakfast cereal, for example, is already high. Just wait until we start pumping it into SUVs instead of our kids. Are you a meat-eater? That meat grew on corn, so get ready for steak-sticker shock.

Yes, we do need to get away from petroleum-based fuels as soon as possible, for both national security and pressing environmental reasons. But again I am forced to ask the question: Is burning food the right or moral way to do that?

Corn-holed again?

Besides that, my reporter's gut tells me we about to be collectively screwed again by the usual suspects. You know who they are. Energy companies have invested trillions of dollars into fuel processing and distribution infrastructure. It's only good for one thing -- making and moving flammable liquids to market. Suddenly their traditional raw material -- oil -- has become a wasting asset. They needed another flammable liquid suited to their existing storage and distribution infrastructure, and they needed it fast.

Ethanol is it.

A friend in desperate need can be a friend indeed to another friend in desperate need. And Big Energy found a very needy friend in Middle America -- agribusiness. Farmers had watched with growing alarm as one federal farm subsidy (welfare) after another disappeared. Farming, once a political sacred cow, had lost most of its political clout over the past few decades.

Ah, agribusiness has gotten its groove back by becoming America's very own Saudi Arabia. And who could better show them how to do that than Big Energy companies who were ready, willing and able to help farmers turn their food into fuel.

Man, do those energy companies and farm groups know how to build a buzz. "Go Yellow" campaigns, complete with T-shirts, pro-environment seminars and ads featuring family farmers. Almost overnight, voting against farmers bordered on voting for terrorists, for dependence on foreign oil and for global warming. Growing corn is now a patriotic endeavor.

Not only has ethanol revived the image of corporate farmers, but Big Energy benefits as well, as it tries to use its support for "clean-burning ethanol" to burnish corporate images that were heading into the shitter right behind Big Tobacco companies.

So what am I trying to say? Nothing scientific, that's for sure. I've read some research materials for and against ethanol. But I still have no idea if corn-based ethanol is better for the environment than oil-based fuels or not. Hell, I'm not even sure if the damn stuff doesn't use as much energy to make as it can produce when you burn it in your car.

I will leave such conclusions to those who got Cs and above in science class. But I am pretty damn sure that burning food as a replacement for oil is not a solution the world can live with -- literally. It simply does not make sense to me on any level.

Nevertheless the ethanol from corn juggernaut is on a roll, and it's going to be tough to stop.
The United States fuel ethanol industry is based largely on corn. As of 2005, its capacity is 15 billion liters annually. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires U.S. fuel ethanol production to increase to 28 billion liters (7.5 billion gallons) by 2012. In the United States, ethanol is most commonly blended with gasoline as a blend of up to 10 percent ethanol, known as E10 and nicknamed "gasohol." This blend is widely sold throughout the U.S. Midwest, which contains the nation's chief corn-growing centers. (Wikipedia)
This is not the first time America has faced a fuel crisis. During World War II gasoline was scarce and innovation sparked a number of unique solutions. For example, I bought a farm in the Midwest back in the 1970s, and among the tractors I got with the deal was a 1943 John Deer "all-fuel" tractor. If you poured a liquid into its tank that burned, the damn thing would run on it. It had a big fly wheel on the side you turned by hand to get it started, and the weight of that wheel turning kept the tractor running even if the fuel you put in it did not burn very well. The war only lasted four years of so, and as soon as regular old gasoline and diesel were readily available again that kind of "out of the box" innovation stopped. But you know, I'll bet that little green tractor is still running today, 63 years later. I only wish I still owned it.

I have long advocated a Manhattan Project II: a government funded, 10-year, all-out program to produce clean, renewable energy. Who knows what our energy picture would be like today if gasoline had remained scarce after WWII? We were certainly heading in some interesting directions at the time. So what we need now is a sustained push, harnessing the best minds in science and engineering until we come up with a set of solutions that fit both Earth and mankind's needs.

Instead what we have is a solution being shoved down our throats by two groups, Big Energy and Big Agriculture, that are looking after their interests solely.

Ethanol itself is not an issue, but what we make it from sure as hell is an issue. Corn is not the only way to make ethanol. It's just the most convenient and profitable raw material. And it's politically convenient as well.

So far, those with the vested interest are getting what they want. Farm states have their political clout back, energy companies have their replacement for oil and can claim they've "gone green." Politicians have new pork for their barrels, the White House can claim it's doing something to wean us off foreign oil, auto makers get another couple of decades out of their old internal combustion engines.

When Americans burn food for fuel, it seems everyone wins. Well, not everyone.
Stephen Pizzo is the author of numerous books, including "Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans," which was nominated for a Pulitzer.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World