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

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.