Is the Tide Turning Against Feeding Cars Instead of People?

Many conservative and mainstream publications are starting to sound like Treehugger.

harvesting corn

Richard Newstead / Getty Images

The concept of growing corn to feed cars have always seemed silly. It is just another subsidy to keep cars fat and happy, but farmers love it and politicians love farmers.

More recently, the Biden administration said it was increasing the amount of ethanol biofuel that could be added to gasoline to help keep gas prices lower. I noted: "This will increase the amount of grain that is used to feed cars when we should really be thinking about growing grain to feed people now that exports from Ukraine and Russia are cut off." It's not just corn either; the vegetable oil shortage highlights the need to feed people, not cars.

But where we might be dismissed as a bunch of hippie treehuggers, other more mainstream commentators are hopping on this issue. Over at Bloomberg, David Fickling wrote it's time to get biofuels out of your gas tank. He says that before electric cars were on the horizon, it seemed like a good idea, "the best way of tackling emissions from road transport." But times have changed.

"As a result, an industry that always had questionable advantages is now starting to be an impediment to cleaner modes of transport. Worse, the pressure it’s putting on the planet’s limited farmland is hampering our ability to feed the world’s poorest. It’s time to start dismantling the pipeline connecting farms to gas tanks before it does any more harm."
Andy Singer Cartoon about Ethanol

Andy Singer

The argument that biofuels decreased carbon dioxide emissions was always specious, as the famous Andy Singer cartoon makes clear. There are huge inputs of fertilizer and diesel fuel to grow corn and convert it to biofuel. But as Fickling noted, it is demolished by the rise of the electric car.

"From now on, it’s the rising share of battery-powered cars on the roads that will do the heavy lifting of emissions reduction," wrote Fickling. "The biofuels lobby, which has at times teamed up with Big Oil to oppose government incentives for electrified transport, looks increasingly more like a hindrance than a help."

Meanwhile, a new study confirms Singer was right, finding that "the production of corn-based ethanol in the United States has failed to meet the policy’s own greenhouse gas emissions targets and negatively affected water quality, the area of land used for conservation, and other ecosystem processes."

Corn grown for Ethanol

 Scott Olson / Getty Images

In the United Kingdom, another bunch of hippie enviros, Emiko Terazono and Camilla Hodgson of the Financial Times, wrote how the Ukraine war sharpened the debate on the use of crops for energy. They report that even food companies are calling for an easing of biofuel mandates, adding how in the European Union, Belgium and Germany are considering easing blending mandates, even as the U.S. increases them.

Terazono and Hodgson noted the scale of the problem and the impact of the Ukraine war:

"Between them, Russia and Ukraine produce nearly a fifth of the world’s corn and more than half its sunflower oil, but crop exports from the countries are at a fraction of prewar levels. Hundreds of millions of people are at risk of “hunger and destitution” because of food shortages caused by the war, the UN’s secretary-general warned last week. The total amount of crops used annually for biofuels is equal to the calorie consumption of 1.9bn people, according to data firm Gro Intelligence, highlighting the volume of agricultural commodities that could be diverted from energy use if the food security crisis worsened."
Farm producing ethanol with field and machinery.

photosbyjim / Getty Images

Then we have the enviromaniacs at Reuters, where Henry Boucher wrote the global hunger fight means no biofuel. He said that even before the Ukraine war made things worse, the food supply was challenged by climate change and Covid-19, with food security crises happening all over the world. We are seeing this with shortages in everything from mustard to Sriracha.

Boucher wrote:

"Even though supply disruptions in many parts of the world are severe and policy solutions are challenging, Western governments do have the opportunity to reverse the rising cost of food through the simple scrapping of biofuel mandates. This would remove a very large non-food demand for crops and turn the current grain shortage to a surplus, easing the pressure on inflation."

Boucher noted, as we have, that biofuel policies are political, not environmental, and that "regulations requiring a proportion of fuel to come from crops have greatly increased demand, making biofuel policies highly popular among landowners and voters in some rural constituencies." He suggested eliminating the biofuel mandates would lower food prices and "would reduce economic stress not only for millions of lower-income Americans but billions more people around the globe."

E85 gas pump

Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

It is an interesting question, whether Americans would prefer low food prices or low gas prices. Michael Greenwald of Canary Media made the connection between the two very clear with his statement that "the amount of corn it takes to fill an SUV with ethanol could feed a person for a year." He explained why American politicians love ethanol anyway.

"It’s understandable that policymakers are grasping for alternatives to fossil fuels during a climate crisis. It’s especially understandable during an energy crisis when renewable fuels can be a four-fer that address public anger about gas prices, reduce demand for Vladimir Putin’s petroleum, subsidize rural interests with outsized political influence, and at least sound like a step toward a greener world. Politically, bioenergy is usually the path of least resistance."

But when Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Financial Times all start sounding like Treehugger, one has to wonder whether the tide is finally turning against feeding cars instead of people.

View Article Sources
  1. Lark, Tyler J. et al. "Environmental Outcomes Of the US Renewable Fuel Standard." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 119, no. 9, 2022, doi:10.1073/pnas.2101084119