Why food prices are rising -- and why they won't drop any time soon

It’s also a business under enormous strain. Some “60 to 70% of the cost of raising a hog is tied up in the grains,” Mr. Pope explains. “The major ingredient is corn, and the secondary ingredient is soybean meal.” Over the last several years, “the cost of corn has gone from a base of $2.40 a bushel to today at $7.40 a bushel, nearly triple what it was just a few years ago.” Which means every product that uses corn has risen, too—including everything from “cereal to soft drinks” and more.

What triggered the upswing? In part: ethanol. President George W. Bush “came forward with—what do you call?—the edict that we were going to mandate 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels” by 2022, of which corn-based ethanol is “a substantial part.” Companies that blend ethanol into fuel get a $5 billion annual tax credit, and there’s a tariff to keep foreign producers out of the U.S. market. Now 40% of the corn crop is “directed to ethanol, which equals the amount that’s going into livestock food,” Mr. Pope calculates…

Food price inflation isn’t a problem confined to America’s shores. “This ethanol policy has impacted the world price of corn,” Mr. Pope says. The Mexican, Canadian and European industries have “shrunk dramatically. . . . We have an unsustainable meat protein production industry,” he says. “We’re built on a platform of costs, on a policy that doesn’t make any sense!”

Nor does the science. The ethanol industry would supply only 4% of the nation’s annual energy needs even if it used 100% of the corn crop. The Environmental Protection Agency has found ethanol production has a neutral to negative impact on the environment. “The subsidy has been out there since the 1970s,” Mr. Pope says. “If they can’t make themselves into a viable economic model in 40 years, haven’t we demonstrated that this is an industry that shouldn’t exist?”