Ethanol Feeds Food Crisis

Climate change is having a huge impact on food prices, as a widespread drought continues to burn away crops across the country.

Corn prices jumped to $8.49 a bushel in mid-August, a two-month jump of 57% according to Bloomberg News. The price spike has had widespread impact on global food prices, according to Bloomberg, because of corn’s omnipresence in the food supply, as food, animal feed, sweetener and fuel.

It “helped drive up global food inflation tracked by the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization 6.2% in July from a month earlier, the biggest monthly jump since November 2009,” Bloomberg said.

This is likely to mean not just higher prices for produce, but for meat and milk, as well, even as their quality decreases. The New York Times, in July, reported that feeding lands were depleted and that the rising cost of feed grains has put stress on cattle farmers, who are likely to pass along the costs to consumers.

“Because feed can account for nearly half of a cattle farmer’s costs, consumers could see a rise in the price of meat and dairy products, experts said. The high sustained heat has led the key components in milk, like fat and protein, to plummet more than usual, said Chris Galen, a spokesman for National Milk Producers Federation.”

The drought appears to be caused by natural weather patterns, though man made climate change has sped its spread and deepened its impacts. The natural defenses that have mitigated past droughts have been eroded, leaving us far more susceptible to weather shifts than in the past.

Richard Seager, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, and a prominent drought researcher, told Climate Central that the drought’s “origins can be traced to the tropical Pacific Ocean, where a periodic cooling of sea surface temperatures — a phenomenon known as La Niña — helped reconfigure global weather patterns during the past two years.” Global warming, however, has played a major role, as well.

“Unlike the droughts of the 1930s,” Climate Central reported, “this one is occurring in a much warmer climate, a byproduct of manmade global warming. Seager said that although it most likely didn’t trigger the drought, it’s possible that global warming is making this drought worse than it would otherwise be.”

Researchers Christopher R. Schwalm, Christopher A. Williams and Kevin Schaefer, in a piece in the New York Times, said the current drought – what we now think of as an “extreme event” – very well might be the “new normal.”

“(C)limate models point to a warmer planet, largely because of greenhouse gas emissions” they wrote in their op-ed. “Planetary warming, in turn, is expected to create drier conditions across western North America, because of the way global-wind and atmospheric-pressure patterns shift in response.”

The result is likely to be more and even more severe droughts, which in turn will exacerbate climate change and create even more severe conditions.

“These climate-model projections suggest that what we consider today to be an episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal wetness by the end of the century and that a coming megadrought — a prolonged, multidecade period of significantly below-average precipitation — is possible and likely in the American West.”

The result, they say, will be a change in the way we allocate water as demand increases and the “sort of temporary emergency steps that we grudgingly adopt during periods of low rainfall” are likely to become permanent.

This brings us to the issue of food.

“Some regions,” they write, “will become impossible to farm because of lack of irrigation water.”

This is why international food agencies are concerned that US policy is making the problem worse. They are calling on the United States to end its corn ethanol program – which uses 40% of the corn produced — because the use of corn for fuel is reducing supplies for food and feed.

“Biofuel production has to be stopped,” Shenggen Fan, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute told Bloomberg. “That actually pushed global food prices higher, and many poor people, particularly women and children, have suffered.”

The ethanol program is part of a government mandate to increase the use of alternate fuels. The majority of American ethanol comes from corn – “about 4.5 billion bushels” or “almost as much as the combined forecast output in Argentina, Brazil and Ukraine, the three biggest shippers after the United States, and more than global imports of 90.86 million tons estimated by the USDA for the year beginning Oct. 1,” according to Bloomberg.

Corn ethanol, however, is inefficient as fuel and does not appear to achieve its stated goal of reducing carbon emissions. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, ethanol’s “lifecycle emissions” may not be much less than that of gasoline, especially when land use is taken into the equation.

“Most analyses conducted before 2008 indicate that corn ethanol delivers a 10 to 20 percent reduction in global warming emissions over its lifecycle compared with gasoline, but these analyses did not include land use changes,” the UCS says on its website. “The reduction is modest because corn production requires a significant amount of fossil fuel inputs for farm operations, processing and distilling, and fertilizer production (generally natural gas). Fertilizers used for corn production also generate a substantial amount of nitrous oxide, a potent global warming pollutant, as unused fertilizer breaks down in the field. In addition, many corn ethanol production facilities operate on natural gas; if new production facilities use coal instead, the emission benefits of corn ethanol could be reduced or eliminated.”

Newer studies take these costs into account.

“If land is converted from forest to cropland, there can be a significant increase in global warming pollution,” the organization said. “Recent estimates suggest that the emissions from these changes in land use may be huge and could dramatically shift the balance of risks and rewards for some kinds of ethanol. For example, when lifecycle analysis of corn ethanol includes land use changes caused by using corn for ethanol rather than food or animal feed, the lifecycle emissions can end up as high as gasoline or potentially much higher.”

There are alternatives, though they may take some effort to implement. Cellulosic ethanol – made from grasses, wood and organic waste – “can reduce lifecycle global warming emissions by as much as 80 to 90 percent compared with gasoline” because it “require(s) less fertilizer to grow and require(s) less land in order to produce an equivalent amount of fuel.”

This does not take into account the great potential that local food movements have to reduce emissions by drastically shortening transit routes and lowering transportation costs.

The point is to make sure that the alternative fuels we develop do not compete with the production of food and truly cut down on the production of carbon.

Hank Kalet is a poet and freelance journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog; Twitter, @newspoet41;

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2012

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