Time to end the folly of ethanol

To paraphrase the late, great William F. Buckley, Jr., someone must stand athwart the federal ethanol program yelling, “Stop!” The emergency brake should be pulled – NOW – before ethanol wreaks further havoc.

Poor Haitians rioted last week outside Port-au-Prince’s presidential palace, forcing Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis’ April 12 ouster. Haitians are enduring food prices 40 percent higher than last summer’s. Some have resorted to eating cookies made of salt, vegetable oil, and dirt. That’s right: Dirt cookies.

Developing-world denizens are taking it to the streets with growling stomachs. In Bob Marley’s words, “A hungry man is an angry man.”

Climbing corn prices have ignited Mexican tortilla riots. Enraged citizens in Egypt and Pakistan – potential Muslim powder kegs – also violently have protested premium prices for basic staples. Similar instability has erupted from the Ivory Coast to Indonesia. Resurrecting the defeated “import substitution” model of yore, India and Vietnam are among the nations that lately have prohibited grain exports and imposed government price controls. Kazakhstan, Earth’s No. 5 wheat source, just halted wheat exports, hoping to horde local supplies. One third of the global wheat market is now closed.

High oil prices and growing global food demand fan these flames, but government lit the match. Atop the European Union’s biofuels mandate, America’s 51-cent-per-gallon ethanol tax subsidy (2007 cost: $8 billion) and Congress’ 7.5-billion-gallon annual production quota (rising to 36 billion in 2022) have turned corn farms into monetary printing presses. Diverting one quarter of U.S. corn into motors rather than mouths has boosted prices 74 percent in a year.

Eager to ride the ethanol gravy train, wheat and soybean farmers increasingly switch to corn. Thus, hard wheat is up 86 percent, while soybeans cost 93 percent more. Since April 15, 2007, pricier, grain-based animal feed has helped hike eggs 46 percent. Got milk? You paid 26 percent more. Conversely, meat prices have dropped, as farmers slaughter animals rather than pay so much to feed them.

All this has triggered a race to the top of the grain silo.

On April 9, “the World Bank estimated global food prices have risen 83 percent over the past three years, threatening recent strides in poverty reduction,” the Wall Street Journal noted the next day. “The price of rice, the staple for billions of Asians, is up 147 percent over the past year.”

As ReasonOnline’s Ronald Bailey observed April 8, “the result of these mandates is that about 100 million tons of grain will be transformed this year into fuel … 100 million tons of grain is enough to feed nearly 450 million people for a year.” In short, car engines are burning the crops that feed a half-billion people.

President Bush announced on Monday that the United States would provide $200 million in nutritional aid to poor countries ripped by such unrest. This may feed starving rioters, but it perversely requires that Uncle Sam allocate fresh taxpayer money to scour the mess he created by spending $8 billion in ethanol subsidies.

This is like buying a new hangover cure every morning after closing a new bar every night.

Bad enough if this suffering and strife were ethanol’s ransom for dramatic environmental progress. In fact, ethanol is Earth-hostile. Turning forests into corn fields kills wildlife-friendly, CO2-absorbent trees. Nitrogen-based fertilizers yield nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. Irrigating corn strains fresh-water supplies and fills streams with agricultural chemicals.


Congress immediately should abolish federal ethanol subsidies, mandates, and the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imports – including Brazil’s cheaper, cleaner, sugar-based ethanol. If scientists can develop ethanol that neither starves people nor rapes the Earth, splendid. However, this enterprise must not rest upon morally repugnant, ecologically counterproductive, economically devastating, government-ordered distortions.

This is all a sop to U.S. grain growers, arguably the most pampered and endlessly entitled people beside Saudi royalty. Since they are hooked on handouts, here’s one more: In exchange for a two-year federal tax holiday on any income they earn, every actual, tractor-driving corn/biofuel farmer should retreat quietly and let America’s experiment in state-sponsored ethanol enter the Unintended Consequences Hall of Fame. Compared to the global chaos that ethanol is fueling, this is a tolerable, one-time investment to pry these farmers’ and their Washington enablers’ hands off of our necks.

(Deroy Murdock is a columnist and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail him at deroy.murdock(at)gmail.com)


  1. pondering_it_all

    100 million tons of grain being diverted into fuel production seems pretty important… unless you consider that 2.316 billion tons of grain were produced in 2007. The grain used for ethanol and biodiesel was about 4.4% of the total. That doesn’t explain the vastly increased cost!

    Could it be that Mr. Murdock has once again written a story to promote the conservative agenda by leaving out important facts and concepts? For example, how much of the cost increase is the DIRECT result of ever-higher oil prices?

    Even if none of the grain went to alternative fuel production, the prices would be just about the same. You want to blame somebody for this, try the two oil men running the US: Bush walks around holding hands with the Saudi oil minister and kisses the Prince on the lips. Then he does everything possible to remove Iraqi oil from the world market. Meanwhile oil prices have gone up around 600% since Bush took office. Coincidence???

  2. almandine

    “If scientists can develop ethanol that neither starves people nor rapes the Earth, splendid.”

    It’s already been done. Industrial grade HEMP provides more energy per unit than any of the other grains, grasses, etc.

    It uses less water, too.

    Just try to get it re-legalized, though. Some will erroneously think you’re trying to get high… which it isn’t any good for.

  3. Sandra Price

    Yes calico, but where is the research being done in America? Has anything been discussed in the Congress about this less expensive energy? Global warming seems to be the core of the debate and nothing else is mentioned. Too much red tape and too many federal people not working a full week and those who do are dumb as dirt.

  4. calico_jack

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Nuclear power plus electric cars are the only viable solution. Now after you’ve finished wringing your hands you should realize that it’s the only conceivable way to feed our bloated energy apettite. Nuclear energy is clean and efficient. Once thorium reactors get scaled up it will be even better still as they can burn up our old waste, don’t produce weapons grade material, and are not self sustaining (meaning no meltdowns).

  5. Sandra Price

    I keep hearing that we have plenty of oil in the Dakotas. This is being used to replace the waste of corn for our energy problems. I communicate with a lot of Republicans who want all dealings with Ethanol to be stopped but they never come up with an alternative energy.

    Could it be that Bush and Cheney are oil men and want to continue to make money off of the Middle East? It matters little to those fellows that we are losing our financial base and our military defenses to their continuation of oil being bought from the enemies of America.

    We have an Energy Department in our government and there is nothing positive coming from them. Has Obama or Clinton come up with a solution at this time?

  6. CheckerboardStrangler

    The key problem with ethanol is that the main source of it, particularly in the U.S., comes from GRAIN (CORN).
    It’s well known that corn ethanol is an energy EROI drain instead of a source.
    Cellulosic ethanol is one of the key answers to this problem but government has been intentionally sluggish in aiding its development because it would hurt corn farmers who form that same powerful lobby that gave corn its exclusive position in the ethanol race.

    What started as an honest search for petroleum alternatives got co-opted, just like so many other honest endeavors in today’s politically charged atmosphere of manipulative marketing.

    Yes…MARKETING. Ethanol was MARKETED to America as an alternative energy source. The dog and pony show that played out showed an America free from dependence on oil thanks in part to ethanol. The automakers MARKETED ethanol as a “feel good” way to go “green”. We were MARKETED to and ultimately sold down the river once the lobbies figured out the angle to use. The angle was “hide the truth about corn and let her rip”.

    If we ever do get cellulosic ethanol up and running in a practical, feasible manner, the debate about food versus energy will change, and for the better. It won’t be over, but it will tip the scales and take some of the pressure off.

    But watch and wait as Big Corn digs its heels in.
    The corn industry isn’t about to let this go without a fight, one which might last years or even decades.
    We will be force fed a diet of ethanol from corn whether we like it or not.

    Big Corn has learned from Big Oil, and they are a star pupil. God help tiny and weak cellulosic. They’re staring straight into the eyes of a Goliath.

    With regard to nuclear, yes…”this ain’t your father’s nuclear power”, but nuclear has yet to figure out that they have to get “on message” in that regard, and even if they were to get on message, they’re also fighting an uphill battle, not only against Big Oil and Big Coal, but against Big Auto. Big Auto doesn’t want change, they’ve actively campaigned against it, they’ve even destroyed working prototypes in order to stop change dead in its tracks.

    Nope, we’re going to be riding the horse of 20th Century Big Energy until there is nothing left but the hooves, until every last penny is squeezed out of our pockets.

    JeffH in Occupied TX

  7. CheckerboardStrangler

    Isn’t it time Capitol Hill Blue re-evaluate its relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s pampered son?