One tankful of the latest craze in alternative energy could feed one person for a year, Lester Brown tells Fortune.
The growing myth that corn is a cure-all for our energy woes is leading us toward a potentially dangerous global fight for food. While crop-based ethanol -the latest craze in alternative energy - promises a guilt-free way to keep our gas tanks full, the reality is that overuse of our agricultural resources could have consequences even more drastic than, say, being deprived of our SUVs. It could leave much of the world hungry.
We are facing an epic competition between the 800 million motorists who want to protect their mobility and the two billion poorest people in the world who simply want to survive. In effect, supermarkets and service stations are now competing for the same resources.
The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol, for instance, could feed one person for a year. If today's entire U.S. grain harvest were converted into fuel for cars, it would still satisfy less than one-sixth of U.S. demand.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that world grain consumption will increase by 20 million tons this year, roughly 1%. Of that, 14 million tons will be used to fuel cars in the U.S., leaving only six million tons to cover the world's growing food needs.
Already commodity prices are rising. Sugar prices have doubled over the past 18 months (driven in part by Brazil's use of sugar cane for fuel), and world corn and wheat prices are up one-fourth so far this year.
Once stimulated solely by government subsidies, biofuel production is now being driven largely by the runaway price of oil. Many food commodities, including corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and sugar cane, can be converted into fuel; thus the food and energy economies are beginning to merge.
The market is setting the price for farm commodities at their oil-equivalent value. As the price of oil climbs, so will the price of food.
In some U.S. Cornbelt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, 25 ethanol plants are operating, four are under construction, and another 26 are planned.
Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner observes that if all those plants are built, distilleries would use the entire Iowa corn harvest. In South Dakota, ethanol distilleries are already claiming over half that state's crop.
The key to lessening demand for grain is to commercialize ethanol production from cellulosic materials such as switchgrass or poplar trees, a prospect that is at least five years away.
Malaysia, the leading exporter of palm oil, is emerging as the biofuel leader in Asia. But after approving 32 biodiesel refineries within the past 15 months, it recently suspended further licensing while it assesses the adequacy of its palm oil supplies. Fast-rising global demand for palm oil for both food and biodiesel purposes, coupled with rising domestic needs, has the government concerned that there will not be enough to go around.