Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ethanol and the Poor

I'm not much of an environmentalist.

By that, I don't mean that I'm against environmental concerns. I'm simply not well-read on many of them and I probably don't do nearly enough to help with them. I recycle paper. I used to recycle other things as well, but that has fallen by the wayside.

I also need to say that I think there is a great theological basis for people of faith to pay attention to environmental issues. Psalm 8 speaks of humanity's dominion of the earth. I take that to mean that we've been entrusted with it, and we should take that seriously. Too often, Christians move the environment to the peripheries, if it's on their radar at all. And tragically, it's usually in the name of baptized consumerism or "being-politically-incorrect-just-because-I-can" that Christians dismiss these types of concerns. I've seen or heard these reasons the most.

It could also be laziness, to which I fess up. For me, that's a big part of it.

Anyway, like I said, part of it is also that I'm not as well-read on some of this stuff as I should be. I'm bothered, for instance, by the global warming discussion. I just began to seriously wrestle with this issue, and there's some indication that humans are less responsible for it than we think. But I have to keep reading up on that.

What I'm really bothered about at the moment, however, is this:

With prices for rice, wheat, and corn soaring, food-related unrest has broken out in places such as Haiti, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. Several countries have blocked the export of grain. There is even talk that governments could fall if they cannot bring food costs down.

One factor being blamed for the price hikes is the use of government subsidies to promote the use of corn for ethanol production. An estimated 30% of America’s corn crop now goes to fuel, not food.

“I don’t think anybody knows precisely how much ethanol contributes to the run-up in food prices, but the contribution is clearly substantial,” a professor of applied economics and law at the University of Minnesota, C. Ford Runge, said. A study by a Washington think tank, the International Food Policy Research Institute, indicated that between a quarter and a third of the recent hike in commodities prices is attributable to biofuels.

Last year, Mr. Runge and a colleague, Benjamin Senauer, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor.”

“We were criticized for being alarmist at the time,” Mr. Runge said. “I think our views, looking back a year, were probably too conservative.”

Ethanol was initially promoted as a vehicle for America to cut back on foreign oil. In recent years, biofuels have also been touted as a way to fight climate change, but the food crisis does not augur well for ethanol’s prospects.

“It takes around 400 pounds of corn to make 25 gallons of ethanol,” Mr. Senauer, also an applied economics professor at Minnesota, said. “It’s not going to be a very good diet but that’s roughly enough to keep an adult person alive for a year.”

Like I said, I'm not much of an environmentalist. I need to read more. But I'm also not much for pitting competing justice causes (and, I'd argue, causes that God cares about) against each other. There's some of that going on here, but if I'm honest with myself and if this report is accurate, this seems like a no-brainer to me. It seems to me that this just makes ethanol out to be an inadequate option.

400 pounds of corn to make 25 gallons is not a good ratio to me. That's roughly 2.5 gas tanks based on the average car (read: not trucks, SUVs, minivans, etc.) That's also 400 pounds of corn that someone in the Third World isn't eating, and they're probably more concerned about that than driving a car to begin with (if they own one).

Like I said, I probably need to read more about this. But there are some serious ethical issues involved here, and I don't see ethanol on the winning end. Maybe others do.

If someone out there can make a good case for ethanol, let's hear it. Otherwise, I'm siding with the poor on this one.