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Why It’s Wrong to Agree with the Malthusians about Ethanol

Rising food prices are the result of rising oil prices, not a growing market for ethanol.

by
Robert Zubrin

Bio

May 13, 2011 - 12:00 am

In an op-ed article printed in the Denver Post May 8, editorial columnist Vince Carroll endorsed the view of population control advocate Lester Brown that the U.S. corn ethanol program is threatening the world’s poor with starvation. This endorsement is especially remarkable in view of the fact that, as the otherwise generally astute Mr. Carroll has correctly noted many times in the past, all of Lester Brown’s many previous limited-resources doomsday predictions have proven wildly incorrect.

In fact, Lester Brown is wrong about the alleged famine-inducing potential of the ethanol program for exactly the same reason he has been repeatedly wrong about the alleged famine-inducing potential of population growth. There is not a fixed amount of grain in the world. Farmers produce in response to demand. The more customers, the more grain. Not only that, but the larger the potential market, the greater the motivation for investment in improved techniques.

This is why, despite the fact that the world population has indeed doubled since Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, and the other population control zealots first published their manifestos during the 1960s, people worldwide are eating much better today than they were then. In the case of America’s corn growing industry, the beneficial effect of a growing market has been especially pronounced, with corn yields per acre in 2010 (165 bushels per acre) being 37 percent higher than they were in 2002 (120 bushels per acres) and more than four times as great as they were in 1960 (40 bushels per acre.)

Not only that, but in part because of the impetus of the expanded ethanol program, another doubling of yield is now in sight, as the best farms have pushed yields above 300 bushels per acre. As a result, in 2010, the state of Iowa alone produced more corn than the entire United States did in 1947. Of our entire corn crop, only 2 percent is actually eaten by Americans as corn, or 12 percent if one includes products like corn chips and corn syrup.

These advances in productivity do not only benefit the United States. America’s farmers are the vanguard for their counterparts worldwide. New seed strains and other techniques first demonstrated on our most advanced farms, subsequently spread to average farms, and then go global, thereby raising crop yields everywhere.

There may well be hunger among the world’s poorest this year, but not because of the U.S. corn ethanol program. Rather, the threat comes from high oil prices, which at $100 per barrel will place a tax on the U.S. economy of $800 billion per year, and $3,200 billion on the world economy as a whole. This will raise the price of all goods and slow down the world economy, thereby throwing millions of people out of work and leaving them without income to buy food. According to a Merrill Lynch analysis, if not for the world’s ethanol programs (of which U.S. production represents about a third), global oil prices would be 15 percent higher than they are, thereby placing an additional $480 billion impost on the world economy.

The problem is not that we are producing too much alcohol to compete against oil, but that we are not producing enough. Corn ethanol has now replaced 8 percent of American gasoline. This is a useful contribution, but it is insufficient to save our economy from the wrecking caused by the OPEC oil cartel’s policy of limiting production to artificially drive up fuel prices. If we are to defeat this policy, we need to throw the liquid fuel market open to alternatives to petroleum on a scale that is simply not the case today.

This could be achieved by adoption of the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard bill (HR 1687) which was introduced into congress last week by Congressmen John Shimkus (R-IL), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Steve Israel (D-NY). Under this bill, the majority of new cars sold in to the USA would be required to be fully flex fuel, able to run equally well on any combination of methanol, ethanol, or gasoline. Since foreign car makers would be impelled to conform to requirement if they wish to continue to sell in the U.S. market, this would make flex fuel capability effectively the international standard.

As methanol can cheaply be produced from such abundant sources as natural gas, coal, biomass, or trash (its current spot price is about $1.20 per gallon, without any subsidy, equivalent in energy terms to gasoline at $2.18/gallon), providing consumers with fuel choice in this way would create a permanent competitive constraint on the price of oil.

Agreeing with Lester Brown and the other Malthusians denouncing ethanol is wrong because their fundamental theory of economics is directly opposite to reality. The world economy is not threatened by corn shortages caused by an enlarged market, but by high oil prices engineered by a cartel. To protect ourselves from depression and the world’s poorest from starvation, we need more competition against the oil cartel, not less. Flex fuel is the way to go.

Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics, a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of "Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil". His newest book, "Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism" has just been published by Encounter Books.
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