Despite a recent dip in gas prices, energy still tops the issues in the US campaign. The Bush administration stirred the debate last week by refusing a request to reduce a mandate for more corn ethanol in gasoline. Even John McCain opposes this false notion that converting a vital food into fuel helps energy security.
The Environmental Protection Agency shot down a plea from Texas to halve the biofuel quota in order to prevent severe economic hardship nationwide. With a near tripling of corn prices in the past three years, not only Texan livestock growers are hurting. All Americans are paying dearly for a mistake by Congress to force corn ethanol into fuel tanks. And the cost amounts to more than the expensive subsidies and tax breaks for the ethanol industry.
Nearly a third of Midwest corn goes into ethanol, raising prices for most grains and for food from Wheaties to chicken. In the first half of 2008, food prices were up 6.8 percent, with corn ethanol as a major culprit. And as stronger ethanol mandates kick in, consumers are expected to see even more food inflation – perhaps $1,200 more in 2009 compared with 2006.
This political catering to the powerful corn lobby, combined with Europe's parallel rush to biofuels, is raising food prices worldwide, triggering riots in many countries and spreading hunger. A World Bank study found biofuels are responsible for up to 75 percent of the rise in food prices since 2002. And all this for a fuel that contains one-third less energy than gasoline, reduces mileage per gallon and, for many vehicle owners, damages engines.
Still, under a law passed by Congress in December called Renewable Fuel Standard, refiners must blend 9 billion gallons of biofuels into the national fuel supply this year, then 11.1 billion next year, and keep going to 36 billion gallons in 14 years. For now, that means corn ethanol.
The ethanol industry is forced to defend this mandate by claiming corn-based fuel is just a transition to nonfood crops such as switch grass. But such technology is years from commercial viability. What's more, studies show many biofuels contribute, rather than reduce, greenhouse gases through growing and processing that use oil. And to make one gallon of ethanol requires about 1,700 gallons of water.
The increasingly harsh light on corn ethanol has even its most ardent supporters worried. Illinois senator and majority whip Dick Durbin (D) recently said the Corn Belt needs to be honest about the effect on food prices.
A group of Republican senators, including Mr. McCain, introduced a bill in May that calls for freezing the corn ethanol mandate at 4.7 billion gallons, or the 2007 level. When lawmakers return to work next month, they'd be wise to avoid voter ire and pass this bill.
By mandating corn ethanol in an irresponsible way, Congress has shown it can't pick winners in energy technologies. Powerful lobbies derail the best of intentions. A better response is to maintain high prices for fossil fuels by boosting taxes on such fuels and reducing their subsidies. This will create incentives for a range of alternative energies and for conservation.
And it may help leave America's grains for eating.