A dark side to the ethanol boom?

A backlash to fuel made from corn is emerging among environmentalists, economists, and antipoverty activists.

In some circles, ethanol made from corn has become a golden nectar in the fight against global warming. It comes from a benign, wholesome, home-grown plant, and it produces no nasty greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

But a backlash to corn ethanol is emerging. Environmentalists, economists, and poverty activists all are raising questions.

Making ethanol from corn may be "much less efficient" than producing gasoline from oil, reports the Associated Press:

"Just growing corn requires expending energy – plowing, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting all require machinery that burns fossil fuel. Modern agriculture relies on large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, both of which are produced by methods that consume fossil fuels. Then there's the cost of transporting the corn to an ethanol plant, where the fermentation and distillation processes consume yet more energy. Finally, there's the cost of transporting the fuel to filling stations. And because ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline, it can't be pumped through relatively efficient pipelines, but must be transported by rail or tanker truck."

Other environmental problems exist as well, according to a report cited in a recent article in the online magazine NewScientist.com. Among the report's conclusions:

"Intensive harvesting erodes soil; massive use of fertilizers contributes to the eutrophication of rivers and lakes and the reduction of fish and aquatic life habitat; widespread use of pesticides contaminates water and soil; and extensive irrigation for corn monoculture depletes water resources."

Another downside to corn ethanol, according to a BBC report, is that land which until recently was growing crops for food is now growing crops for fuel:

"The United Nations says a third of the total US maize [corn] crop went for ethanol last year. The International Monetary Fund says there's no question that demand for biofuels is driving up food prices – and that it will go on doing so…."

UN officials are cautious about such predictions, but they do acknowledge the problem, reports Reuters. According to UN Environment Program executive director Achim Steiner:

"… there is significant potential and risk for competition between food production and production for a global biofuels market…. We have to be aware that there are risks, and for some countries those risks may not be worth taking."

In the United States, the push for corn ethanol already has boosted food prices – everything from a dinner entree to the popcorn families munch at the latest "Harry Potter" movie. "Higher corn prices have boosted the cost of producing beef, poultry and thousands of processed products," writes columnist John Wasik of Bloomberg.com:

"Food prices have climbed an average of $47 per person due to the ethanol surge since last July, according to an Iowa State University study published in May; corn-price futures reached a 10-year high of $4.28 a bushel in February. All told, ethanol has cost Americans an additional $14 billion in higher food prices."

Meanwhile, "rising food prices are threatening the ability of aid organizations to help the world's hungriest people," according to a story in The Christian Science Monitor this week. One main reason? "Growing demand for grains as biofuels is pushing up the price of grains for human and livestock food," the Monitor reports.

"Is a biofuel backlash coming?" asks business columnist Eric Reguly in the online edition of The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

"In Rome, the World Food Program, the UN agency charged with fighting famine, said its budgets are being strained because of surging food prices…. "The world has 800 million cars. If filling them with ethanol and other plant-derived fuels keeps pushing prices up, the world's 2 billion poor people will have something to say about it."

But as many economists have pointed out, part of the problem is that in some countries – the US among them – biofuels are heavily subsidized by the federal government. Mr. Reguly continues:

"Left on its own, the market in time would find a balance between food and fuel production. As it is, the billions in subsidies are encouraging a dramatic rise in biofuel production that would not otherwise occur. "This is partly why the UN food agencies are worried. Too much biofuel is coming to the market too quickly and the casualties might be the poor who can't afford the sharply rising food prices."
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