Feeding cars instead of people

posted at 6:50 am on April 25, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

In a way, the entire concept of biofuels as currently applied makes no sense at all. Instead of using food to actually feed people or even animals, we use it to feed our cars. Ethanol has suddenly lost its luster as an alternative energy source as food prices have skyrocketed, including in global-warming-sympathizing Europe:

Alarmed by rising global food prices, some European leaders are rethinking their commitment to use ethanol fuel and are considering other policy changes to lower the costs of basic staples.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown became the latest official to say that the European Union may have to back off its goal of having ethanol account for 20% of the motor vehicle fuel burned on Europe’s roads by 2020.

The use of corn and sugar to make ethanol is a main driver of rampant inflation in worldwide food costs during the past year. Grocery bills are up across Europe, and the United Nations World Food Program says that rising food prices have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide.

Rising food demand from developing economies such as China and India, plus stagnant crop yields in food-producing nations, also are behind the recent jump in costs.

Perhaps turning food into transportation fuel would make sense if massive amounts of grain spoiled every year from a lack of demand, but that certainly isn’t the case. Farmers love the higher prices that come from the new demand to fill gas tanks, but higher prices have consequences for poorer nations that have just begun to be felt. Morally speaking, shouldn’t we feed people before we feed cars?

What makes this even more absurd is ethanol itself. It burns cleaner, but has significant problems as a transportation fuel. It has only two-thirds the potential energy of gasoline, which means more of it has to be used to get the same mileage. Ethanol has to be shipped by truck as it cannot be pumped through a pipeline, so much more energy has to get expended just to bring it to market. In order to use more than just a small amount in a mixture, car engines have to be designed differently to use it, which means more energy and resources have to go into producing the vehicles.

Every fill of the tank with ethanol uses the same amount of corn a child would eat in a year, and let’s not even talk about the amount of potable water used to grow the corn in the first place. Given the above, which is the better use of the corn?

If we produce ethanol from waste — such as with switchgrass, which shows promise — then no ethical problem would exist, although certainly the efficiency issues would remain. Until then, we should end the push to turn food into fuel, driven by the global-climate-change hysteria and pandering to the agricultural sector. Feed people ahead of cars. Is that really such a difficult concept?

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