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Burning Food

Food is a fuel, of course, though we don't think of it that way. But now that transportation is competing for it, it's having dire effects on everyone, but particularly the poor, largely as a result of idiotic government policies. This should be a good issue for John McCain, if he only understood economics.


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Jonathan wrote:

From the linked article:
The Environmental Protection Agency has missed a golden opportunity to alleviate high global food prices.

The EPA, like all bureaucracies, is mainly in the business of finding opportunities to increase its budget and power. Its recent ethanol ruling makes perfect sense in this context.

Steve wrote:

Not that I disagree with the article, because I'm a reader not a knower on this topic, but...

I keep hearing about high corn prices. But are we looking at the corn here as the end product, or as the all encompassing ingredient in prepared foods? I'm just not sure how much canned corn, fresh corn, or ground corn prepared various ways in the home is eaten in countries where poverty is a huge problem. How much corn from the U.S. hits the African or Asian markets? Or are we talking about the prepared foods, where corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup, etc is used for processing has driven actually up the price? Is it corn futures driving up the price?

I'm asking because I've seen the prices of food go up, but I've not seen the price of ANY corn based foods from corn on the cob to tortillas to breakfast cereal or even Cheetos, nearly double in the year mentioned. I'd rather appear foolish by asking the questions, than spout off idiocy and leave no doubt.

We have the anon troll boy for that.

Rand Simberg wrote:

The price of tortillas in Mexico has gone up dramatically in the last couple years. Also, the price of meat has gone up because the cost of feed grain has gone up.

Cecil Trotter wrote:

How close are we to reaching the limit on how much corn we can grow in this country? If we're not near that limit supply and demand will insure that more corn will be grown in response to the increased price/demand.

As for the food/fuel argument, more to the point it is an argument of soil usage. Do we use the soil to grow a product that will be eaten or used to fuel our autos? For that matter will the soil be used to grow grass, shrubs and trees to impress our neighbors, I don't hear any complaints about the food that could be grown if only we converted our lawns to food production. How much food production land is taken up with Walmart parking lots, football, soccer and base ball fields or CEO's houses?

Personally, until I see figures proving otherwise, I believe we have enough land that we can grow both fuel and food in greater quantities than we're currently doing.

Habitat Hermit wrote:

I don't get it either and disagree at least slightly with the article. Most of the truly poor live on subsistence farming and bartering --the main exception being city slums. If that wasn't enough most underdeveloped countries have for at least a decade been clamoring for access to agricultural markets to sell their produce.

I suspect the article is conflating the situation particularly in the US (but also other industrialized nations) and the world at large, and especially when it comes to the costs. I have a hard time characterizing anyone who buys fertilizer instead of using dung as poor, not that only "the poor" use dung. Rising fertilizer costs is attributed as being the main reason for the price hike.

That said nixing the tariff is a good idea, an even better idea which would remove the overly bureaucratic safety valve would be removing the tariff on corn as well. Hell, I'd like to see all tariffs everywhere across the world gone, they're all fools gold. If one desperately wants to subsidize --once in a while it can make at least some sense for non-economical reasons-- then do it by direct subsidy instead.

I don't know much about Mexico but couldn't there be other reasons? Isn't it becoming a de-industrialized nation or worse due to completely incompetent politicians/ruling "castes"? A "Zimbabwe light" with rising socialism and autocracy? Ok make that a "Venezuela light" instead.

Dan DeLong wrote:

The following quotes Howard Hayden's book "The Solar Fraud". I have checked some of his numbers and assertions, and those seem to be correct as far as I've investigated. Mr Hayden examines the efficiency of growing corn for fuel use including the energy used to distill the mash, and to create the fertilizer. (I don't know if he includes the energy needed to plant and harvest the corn, spread the fertilizer, etc) Per Mr Hayden, 122 bushels of corn per acre per year converts to .195 Watts/m2 at 2.55 gallons ethanol per bushel and averaged over a year. This is 1/4300 of the solar insolation on that acre. Supplying all US energy needs thus would require seven times the land area of the US (not just the arable area). Clearly, a significant fraction of energy needs are not going to come from corn based ethanol. The Brazilian counter-example appears to be a large unpopulated area supporting a small number of autos.

Bill Hensley wrote:

McCain might not be quite as clueless as you suspect, Rand. He has long opposed ethanol subsidies, even though it costs him support in the Midwest. If the economics still support making fuel from corn even without subsidies, I'm not sure the government should step in and stop it.

Rand Simberg wrote:

If the economics still support making fuel from corn even without subsidies, I'm not sure the government should step in and stop it.

Oh, I'm quite sure they shouldn't. But we should only be burning ethanol in our vehicles because it makes economic sense, not as a subsidized payoff to Big Corn. The current head of ADM should be one of those CEOs whose salary gets capped.

Carl Pham wrote:

Well, the article starts off with this scary statement:

perhaps more troubling is the impact of biofuels on global food prices, which have jumped by 44 percent over the past year, compared to a 3.9 percent increase the previous year. Prices for corn - the major source of biofuels - are up by 75 percent over the past year, compared to an 18 percent increase the year before.

And then in true J-school style notes the contradictory facts a little bit later:

To be sure, the biggest contributor to the food price spike is energy price inflation, which has raised fertilizer and transportation costs.

No kidding! The origin of fertilizers is complicated, but the key tie to petroleum is through ammonia, which is made by reducing (adding hydrogen to) nitrogen, and the hydrogen is supplied from petroleum. And anyone reflecting on the fact of how mechanized modern agriculture is should realize what a huge amount of transportation fuel it sucks up.

Nonetheless, by providing incentives to divert food products into fuel, U.S. biofuel policies have also contributed to rising food prices.

No doubt. But how much? 50% or 0.5%? Makes a big difference to one's conclusions, doesn't it? This is not useful journalism. The general conclusion (the Feds should not mandate ethanol usage) is sound, but the supporting arguments are garbage and can easily be torn to shreds by an informed opponent.

Steve, I suspect the reason we even got into corn-based ethanol is through ADM, Tom Harkin, and the efforts of corn growers to find a secondary (and ideally captive) market.

But it's probably idiotic for a variety of reasons beyond its (IMO dubious) effect on world food prices. First, not much of the corn plant is used. Seems silly to use only the sugars in the ear, rather than the (copious) structural hydrocarbons (e.g. cellulose) that make up 95% of the mass of the plant. Secondly, corn is a pretty high-maintenance crop. It needs unbelievable amounts of water, which is why it's mostly grown in states with giant amounts of summertime precipitation like Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa, and not out in the arid plains of Texas, Kansas, or South Dakota, like wheat is. It also needs a lot of fertilizer -- something like 45% of all fertilizer used in the US is used on corn -- and it rapidly depletes the soil, which is why it's always rotated with soybeans these days.

Personally, I think the sad thing about corn-based ethanol is that the folly of making it from corn will help unreasonably discredit the entire idea of growing your hydrocarbons. Switch your source -- make hydrocarbons from weeds -- and it's an idea worth a shot. But the corn fiasco may kill it, somewhat in the way some of the nonideal choices in the early development of nuclear energy (or spaceflight) have unreasonably discolored our present thinking.

Karl Hallowell wrote:

Carl, as I understand it, methane is the primary hydrogen source for ammonia production and most of that comes from natural gas not petroleum.

Carl Pham wrote:

Karl, you're quite right. I thought I said natural gas, but I see that I did not. Thank you for the correction.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on August 20, 2008 6:57 AM.

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