Filling Cars Instead of Bellies

In his recent blog, “Stating the Obvious”, Jonathan Russo writes about how some things that seem so obviously unsustainable and potentially disastrous, can take years to click in the national consciousness—often only after it’s too late (i.e. global warming, subprime mortgage loans, pesticide impacts on health and the environment…). This brought to mind one more “smoking gun” to add to the tally, corn ethanol.

What has been considered the green solution to our oil crisis is being exposed as the exact opposite—a muddy mess that is causing more environmental damage than the oil it’s replacing. Backed by government subsidies and billions of corporate dollars, the race to produce ethanol is resulting in the conversion of vast swathes of natural land—from Iowa, to Indonesia, to Brazil—for fuel production, destroying carbon-storing forests and grasslands, and causing food costs to skyrocket as harvests are being used to fill our cars instead of our bellies. Time Magazine’s cover article this week by Michael Grunwald terms it a “clean energy scam” and New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Paul Krugman states bluntly, “people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.”

The implications of corn ethanol production on our agricultural policies make my palms sweat (and not just because of rising global temperatures). Government subsidies for ethanol production support the prevailing monoculture mentality, with its reliance upon pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and large machinery (and, ironically, its large carbon output). In the April edition of Gourmet, Sam Hurst (“Betting the Farm”) paints an unsettling picture of the South Dakota plains, where traditional cattle and wheat production is being converted to corn production—of the genetically modified and pest resistant variety—for cattle feed, high fructose corn syrup and ethanol, without regard to the inevitable erosion of the thin topsoil or to the effects of pesticides on the health of the land, farmer or consumer.

Meanwhile, small family farms that employ sustainable and organic methods which benefit the soil, produce little (if any) carbon output, and give forth food that is safe and healthy, continue to be neglected by government subsidies and supports.

Bio-fuels may prove to be a very good thing if we can find a way to produce them efficiently using non-arable land. In the meantime, however, we need to reconsider the benefits, and costs, of corn ethanol—hopefully before reaping more harm to the environment and to the world’s hungry.


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