Ethanol Industry Continues to Deflect Blame on Food Prices

by Brian McGraw on March 23, 2011

in Blog, Features

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Instead, they blame those darned speculators (are they aware of the important role played by commodity markets?) again. The industry continues to find support in high places:

Speaking to farmers earlier this month, the Obama administration’s agriculture secretary said he found arguments from the like of Nestlé “irritating”. Mr Vilsack said: “The folks advancing this argument either do not understand or do not accept the notion that our farmers are as productive and smart and innovative and creative enough to meet the needs of food and fuel and feed and export.”

Well, the price of corn has almost doubled in the last 6 months. Now, its obviously unfair to blame this entirely on biofuels. Food crops are heavily dependent on a number of other important factors like the price of oil, the weather, crop yields, etc. However, with 35% of U.S. corn being turned into biofuels, it clearly has a major effect on the price, driving it upwards (and driving other commodities higher as well, as farmland becomes more scarce). Globally, U.S. exports provide about 60% of total corn supply.

As noted in the article above, this has consequences:

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, lashed out at the Obama administration for promoting the use of ethanol made from corn, at the expense of hundreds of millions of people struggling to afford everyday basics made from the crop.

Mr Brabeck-Letmathe weighed in to the increasingly acrimonious debate over food price inflation to condemn politicians around the world who seem determined to blame financial speculators instead of tackling underlying imbalances in supply and demand. And he reserved especially pointed remarks for US agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, who he said was making “absolutely flabbergasting” claims for the country’s ability to cope with rising domestic and global demand for corn.

“Today, 35 per cent of US corn goes into biofuel,” the Nestlé chairman told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York yesterday. “From an environmental point of view this is a nonsense, but more so when we are running out of food in the rest of the world.

“It is absolutely immoral to push hundreds of millions of people into hunger and into extreme poverty because of such a policy, so I think – I insist – no food for fuel.”

Consumers in the United States aren’t being pushed into poverty, because food represents a much smaller portion of the budget. Elsewhere, riots have been started over the price of food.

Absent subsidies, the domestic ethanol industry would be much smaller, and would likely be blended in small amounts with gasoline. Even if you assume energy independence is desirable from a national security perspective, ethanol policy is completely incapable of bringing that to the U.S. The amount of land required and the effects on other commodity prices would be unfathomable.

Tim Searchinger had a nice op-ed in The Washington Post last month covering the hard to define role biofuels play in food prices.

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