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U.S. Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars


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View Tom Turner's blog posts
21 January 2010, 4:21 PM
As the number of undernourished tops a billion for the first time

I'm not going to bother rewriting or interpreting this time, but simply quote at some length from a harrowing release from the Earth Policy Institute, an extremely valuable organization. 

The 107 million tons of grain that went to U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total U.S. grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004.

The United States looms large in the world food economy: it is far and away the world’s leading grain exporter, exporting more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined. In a globalized food economy, increased demand for food to fuel American vehicles puts additional pressure on world food supplies.

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive hunger for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The Earth Policy Institute has noted that even if the entire U.S. grain crop were converted to ethanol (leaving no domestic crop to make bread, rice, pasta, or feed the animals from which we get meat, milk, and eggs), it would satisfy at most 18 percent of U.S. automotive fuel needs. 

When the growing demand for corn for ethanol helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008, people in low-income grain-importing countries were hit the hardest. The unprecedented spike in food prices drove up the number of hungry people in the world to over 1 billion for the first time in 2009. Though the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has recently brought food prices down from their peak, they still remain well above their long-term average levels.

The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once can feed one person for an entire year. The average income of the owners of the world’s 940 million automobiles is at least ten times larger than that of the world’s 2 billion hungriest people. In the competition between cars and hungry people for the world’s harvest, the car is destined to win. The release, with a couple of revealing graphs, is here.

 
 
 

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Wait, ethanol doesn't come from sweet corn, it comes from field corn, right? How much field corn do people eat? Oh other than high fructose corn syrup, almost ziltch. So the ethanol isn't consuming any significant food source at all. And The ethanol didn't push corn prices higher, the real culprit was the migration of investment money out of the struggling stock market and into the commodity market. Most commodities, including oil, gold, energy, & steal, reached record high's during this bubble. In fact, high priced corn almost ruined ethanol as it closed more than a few plants due to bankruptcy. Ethanol is renewable resource that is grown by u.s. farmers, processed by employees of u.s. distilleries, and is displacing imported crude oil. Seems like an obvious win. Especially when the by-product of ethanol, dried distillers grain, is an excellent feed source for livestock - that's right, the field corn used for ethanol ultimately stays in the food chain, feeding cattle & chickens and producing beef, milk, cheese, eggs, & poultry.

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