The U.S. corn crop, accounting
for 40 percent of the global harvest and supplying 70 percent
of the world’s corn exports, looms large in the world
food economy. Annual U.S. corn exports of some 55 million
tons account for nearly one fourth of world grain exports.
The corn harvest of Iowa alone, which edges out Illinois
as the leading producer, exceeds the entire grain harvest
of Canada. Substantially reducing this export flow would
send shock waves throughout the world economy.
Robert Wisner, Iowa State University economist, reports that
Iowa’s demand for corn from processing plants that were
on line, expanding, under construction, or being planned as of
late 2006 totaled 2.7 billion bushels. Yet even in a good year
the state harvests only 2.2 billion bushels. As distilleries
compete with feeders for grain, Iowa could become a corn importer.
With corn supplies tightening fast, rising prices will affect
not only products made directly from corn, such as breakfast
cereals, but also those produced using corn, including milk,
eggs, cheese, butter, poultry, pork, beef, yogurt, and ice cream.
The risk is that soaring food prices could generate a consumer
backlash against the fuel ethanol industry.
Fuel ethanol proponents point out, and rightly so, that the use
of corn to produce ethanol is not a total loss to the food economy
because 30 percent of the corn is recovered in distillers dried
grains that can be fed to beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and chickens,
though only in limited amounts. They also argue that the U.S.
distillery demand for corn can be met by expanding land in corn,
mostly at the expense of soybeans, and by raising yields. While
it is true that the corn crop can be expanded, there is no precedent
for growth on the scale needed. And this soaring demand for corn
comes when world grain production has fallen below consumption
in six of the last seven years, dropping grain stocks to their
lowest level in 34 years.
From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive demand for
fuel is insatiable. Converting the entire U.S. grain harvest
to ethanol would satisfy only 16 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs.In
contrast, the grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol
just once would feed one person for an entire year.
The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million
motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its two billion
poorest people who are simply trying to survive is emerging as
an epic issue. Soaring food prices could lead to urban food riots
in scores of lower income countries that rely on grain imports,
such as Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mexico. The resulting
political instability could in turn disrupt global economic progress,
directly affecting all countries. It is not only food prices
that are at stake, but trends in the Nikkei Index and the Dow
Jones 500 as well.
There are alternatives to creating a crop-based automotive fuel
economy. The equivalent of the 2 percent of U.S. automotive fuel
supplies from ethanol could be increased tenfold, and at a fraction
of the cost, by raising auto fuel efficiency standards by 20
If we shift to gas-electric, hybrid, plug-in cars over the next
decade, we could do short-distance driving, such as the daily
commute or grocery shopping, with electricity. If we then invested
in thousands of wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the
grid, U.S. cars could run primarily on wind energy and at the
gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon. The stage is set
for a crash program to help Detroit switch to gas-electric, hybrid,
It is time for a moratorium on the licensing of new distilleries,
a time-out, while we catch our breath and decide how much corn
can be used for ethanol without dramatically raising food prices.
The policy goal should be to use just enough fuel ethanol to
support corn prices and farm incomes but not so much that it
disrupts the world food economy. Meanwhile, a much greater effort
is needed to produce ethanol from cellulosic sources such as
switchgrass, a feedstock that is not used for food.
The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging
food-fuel battle. As the leading grain producer, grain exporter,
and ethanol producer, the United States is in the driver’s
seat. We need to make sure that in trying to solve one problem—our
dependence on imported oil—we do not create a far more
serious one: chaos in the world food economy.
Lester R. Brown is also author of Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet
under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. For more information
on this topic see earthpolicy.org.