The Corn Lobby’s Influence on the Rise of Food Cost and the Global Food Shortage

The increased use of corn based ethanol has led to the rise in food cost which in turn has led to the global food shortage. The lobbyists for ethanol producers and corn growers in the Midwest are directly responsible for this because of there influence among government officials to make a favorable environment for corn based ethanol to flourish. Before anyone could figure out what was going on, it was too late.

In an effort to find solutions to the global energy crisis, the use of biofuels has taken center stage and is an alternative fuel in use today. The most widely used biofuel is corn based ethanol. As it turns out, ethanol is an excellent fuel source. It is a high octane fuel that allows engines to run at peak performance. Unfortunately, ethanol as a high performance fuel is its only good quality and the remaining bad qualities makes ethanol a poor fuel alternative.

Producers of ethanol claim that it is an environmentally clean fuel source. While they are correct in saying that ethanol itself burns cleaner than pure gasoline and the use of gasoline blended with ethanol has decreased carbon emissions around the country, the production of ethanol requires a great deal of fossil fuel and gasoline blended with ethanol ultimately serves to prolong the use of fossil fuel, not stop it; which means gasoline blended with ethanol is providing a steady flow of carbon emissions into the air.

A newspaper article from the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, entitled, “Corn Ethanol Is Not Clean, Green Energy” says, “Enormous quantities of fossil fuels are burned growing, harvesting and transporting corn. For every gallon’s worth of energy it yields, it takes most of a gallon to produce. The fossil fuels burned, of course, release greenhouse gases.” (News Tribune) The producers of ethanol have to burn large amounts of fossil fuel to create the clean burning ethanol to mix with fossil fuel in order reduce carbon emissions from the fossil fuel. A better picture is given by David Pimentel, an expert in life sciences, energy, and sustainable agriculture from Cornell University. He says, “It takes 1.29 gallons of petroleum or petroleum equivalents to produce one gallon of ethanol.” (Black)

An article from the Christian Science Monitor reports, “Corn ethanol does reduce atmosphere-warming carbon emissions, but environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club say it actually is worse than gasoline in making smog. Meanwhile, builders of the nearly 200 ethanol manufacturing facilities under construction or planned are being tempted to power their facilities with coal. That’s because it’s less expensive than their current choice, natural gas. Coal power would wipe out or reduce the greenhouse gains of ethanol.” (Christian Science Monitor)
Ethanol was never intended to replace fossil fuel. Rather, it was designed from the start to be an additive to gasoline. It is used right now as an additive and not a replacement. So instead of lessening the need for fossil fuel, ethanol prolongs the need for fossil fuel and does more harm then good. Edwin Black author of the article The Corn Ethanol Deception-How Politicians and Agribusiness Tried to Silence the Critics and Promote a Bad Idea says of ethanol as an additive, “Ethanol actually depends upon the continued use of petroleum and by necessity increases petroleum consumption and greenhouse gases.” (Black) In the same article Black says, “What began as an additive functioning as a 10 and 15 percent gasoline extender has become elevated to a potential major ingredient in a gallon of gas.” (Black) He goes on to say that E85 gasoline which is a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline is now available, mostly in the Midwest. E10, which is the most popular blend of ethanol and gasoline, is available all throughout the country.

Ethanol is a supplement to gasoline and only serves to increase the longevity of gasoline. This makes whatever decreases in emissions from blended gasoline and ethanol null. A slightly less dirty fuel is burned for a longer period of time. Ethanol is in no way an eco-friendly fuel.
So ethanol is dependent on gasoline to survive and it would appear that gasoline is now addicted to ethanol. Then why is ethanol so widely used today? There is no “green gains” in using ethanol. Ethanol is also very expensive. It increases the price of a gallon of gasoline. Why is the government mandating the use of gasoline blended with ethanol and offering subsidies not just to corn growers, but ethanol producers as well? The answer is in the powerful ethanol and corn lobby. Lobbyists work on behalf of corn growers and ethanol producers to make sure favorable conditions are met in Washington so that a profit is turned by growing corn for fuel.
Lobbyists work to get politicians to support laws that support their interests. In an article, A Day in the Life of a Lobbyist by Nick Hoover, lobbyist Chris Schepis of the National Farmers Union shares what he does on a day to day basis. Schepis spends most of the day taking and receiving phone calls. These phone calls are with a whole host different people. Some calls are with actual farmers. Others are with politicians or people from his organization. Schepis described the process in which the National Farmers Union would endorse a political candidate. According to Schepis, if the candidate agrees with 80 percent of the organization’s policies, then the candidate would be eligible for endorsement. After endorsement, the candidate would receive money from the organization. Schepis disclosed that the National Farmers Union gave out $81,819 in contributions during the 2003-2004 election cycle. (Hoover) Whether the money given to politicians is hard or soft, depending on the organization’s status, the politician has to return the favor by voting in line with what the organization wants.

One of the ways lobbyists help the ethanol producing industry is to tell politicians to keep foreign ethanol, not made by corn, out of the US. The biggest producer of ethanol outside of the US is Brazil. Their ethanol is not made from corn. It is made from sugar cane. It is also much cheaper than corn based ethanol. Not much sugar cane ethanol gets into the US if any at all because of a tariff on Brazilian ethanol. The tariff is a staggering 54 cents a gallon. According to Ted Koppel, the tariffs are in place because of, “political pressure from US corn and soybean producers to protect their profits.” (Koppel)

The very reason that corn is the champion crop for ethanol is because of the corn lobby. Ethanol can be made out of any plant. Other common plants used to make ethanol are sugar cane as mentioned earlier. It can also be made out of switch grass and wood fibers. Ethanol produced from plants other than corn may be better for the environment and lobbyists push for corn’s dominance in the biofuel industry despite this knowledge. It has been said that, “U.S. ethanol policies rig the market against alternatives based on the conversion of cellulosic inputs such as switch grass and wood fibers. Moreover, the environmental consequences of corn-based ethanol are far from benign, and indeed are negative in a number of important respects.” (Johnson) Sugar cane ethanol in Brazil is manufactured far more efficiently than corn ethanol from the US. Ethanol is not widely produced from any of these other plants in the US because corn growers in the Midwest have extremely powerful lobbyists and are capable of convincing politicians to not endorse any bills that would grant funding to research developing ethanol from plants other than corn.

Powerful lobbyists cooperate with politicians from corn growing states in order to put a friendly face on corn based ethanol. This is done despite the near unanimous conclusion by scientists and energy specialists that ethanol is a terrible fuel alternative and is at best, a “lesser of two evils.” According to the article by Edwin Black, the above mentioned David Pimentel and Tad Patzek, geo-engineer from the University of California released a study which concluded that the production of ethanol consumes more energy than it produces. The study was approved by all 26 scientists that advise the Secretary of Energy. However, two congress persons from “ethanol-producing states” had enough weight to have an investigation done into the study. The investigation upheld the findings and the study was vindicated. However the lobbyists insisted to smear the findings of Pimentel and Patzek. Spokespersons from the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition said of the study done by Pimentel and Patzek that, “Only uneducated people would write such a thing or believe such a thing.” (Black) Such a statement is outrageous. Not only are both Pimentel and Patzek employed by two of the finest universities in the country, but they are also well respected in their fields and have hundreds of peer reviewed articles to their name. They both have also authored a number of books on the subject as well. (Black)

The lobbyists for ethanol producers and corn growers often times turn to sub-sophomoric bullying if and when their slanted facts about corn based ethanol are challenged. They will even challenge the validity of government agencies to try to further the cause of the industry. A study done in 1997 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that investigated the adverse energy tax effects of ethanol was criticized by corn interests and was ultimately challenged by then senator from Iowa, Charles Grassley. (Black) The GAO answered in detail all the questions that Senator Grassley asked and reaffirmed the conclusion of the study. The conclusion of that study, by the way, was alcohol fuels (such as ethanol) do not significantly reduce the demand to import foreign oil. (Black)

Lobbyists are successful in gaining support to keep ethanol flowing and the corn used for its production growing. It all started in 1973 during the first Arab oil embargo. The federal government began to investigate possible fuel alternatives to reduce the country’s need for foreign oil. As an incentive to increase the production of what was then called “gasohol,” a 51 cent per gallon federal tax credit was given to companies that would blend ethanol with gasoline; 10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline. Oil companies quickly stopped making gasohol because it was just not profitable enough even with the tax credit. (Bodipo-Memba)

In 2004 this tax credit was given new life. It was reborn in the form of a bill from congress; HR4520. This bill is also known as The American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. It was signed into law by President Bush on October 22, 2004. This tax credit was slid into the bill. And by the next year, 2.1 billion dollars worth of tax credits were given to oil companies for mixing 4 billion gallons of ethanol into their gasoline. This subsidy sent the demand for ethanol through the roof and raised the price for ethanol 30 percent. (Black) To fill the demand for ethanol, more corn was needed. It had to come from somewhere. The bill was passed in 2004. The oil companies got their money in 2005. In 2006 the price for a bushel of corn went from $2.60 to $4.25, (Rosamond) and on April 20, 2008, after years of subsidies and tax credits for ethanol blended gasoline, Ted Koppel reported on National Public Radio the price of corn per bushel had risen past six dollars. The oil companies found a new way to make money, producers of ethanol have become firmly established into the market, and for the first time in over one hundred years it is now profitable to grow corn.

The corn needed to fill the orders for all that ethanol had to come from somewhere. That somewhere is a place thousands of miles away from Iowa and Illinois. It came from the poor regions of Africa, India, and China where billions of people live on two dollars a day or less. Less corn is being grown for food. Farmers all across the Corn Belt are starting to grow more and more corn for fuel. The price for corn will continue to rise and the situation will get worse and worse for those whom already have very little. In a paper I wrote entitled, “An Inquiry into Ethanol as a Viable Alternative Fuel Source,” I stated that, “800 million people around the world live in what is called a “food-insecure” state, meaning they live on one dollar a day or less. Another 2 to 2.5 billion live on one to two dollars a day. For both groups of people at east half of their income is used for food purchases. This increase in corn prices per bushel alone has placed many people into the food-insecure category, and placed the people that were already in this category, in extreme dire straits. (Rosamond) The corn surpluses are quickly being eliminated, further disrupting goals to erase poverty and hunger. Many people across the globe are in serious risk of starvation because of the increase of ethanol use.” (Kelly)

The connection between the increased production of ethanol and the rising food shortage is so obvious that politicians are beginning to publicly criticize corn based ethanol as a fuel alternative. Even senator Dick Durbin from Illinois, the second largest corn producing state, has begun to question the use of ethanol. Senator Durbin said, “I’ve supported ethanol from the beginning. The object of having homegrown fuel in America is a good goal, and it’s one we’re moving toward ever so slowly. But we have to understand it’s had an impact on food prices. Even in the corn belt, we’d better be honest about it.” (Rushing) Dozens of Republican senators including John McCain are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to ease requirements mandated by congress to blend ethanol with gasoline. (Hughes) Even president Bush has acknowledged that ethanol production is “part of” the reason for the food crisis. (Hughes) There is even a bill being debated in the US Senate right now that would decrease the tax credit for corn based ethanol from 51 cents to 45 cents a gallon. The bill would also give an impressive $1.01 per gallon tax credit for ethanol produced from wood fibers and switch grass. (Hughes) Ethanol produced by wood fibers, switch grass, and other “nonfood” stock is collectively called cellulosic ethanol.
The ethanol backlash has reached government on the state level as well. Texas and Connecticut have asked the EPA to issue waivers for the blended fuel mandate because of the rising cost of food. (Hughes) In the article, Corn Ethanol Loses More Support, “Joseph Glauber told a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee that ethanol subsidies were having an “important impact” on corn prices, directly pushing up the cost of corn-based food. He told the panel that retail food prices increased by 4 percent in 2007, the fastest since 1990.” (Hughes)

Any attempt to argue the rise in ethanol production has nothing to do with the rise in food cost is ridiculous. Rick Tolman from the National Corn Growers association makes the claim that world hunger is not due to a lack of corn for food stock. He says that it is the wheat and rice markets that are affecting world hunger. Tolman says that connecting lack of corn for food stock to world hunger is irresponsible. Wheat prices are as high as they are because of the popularity of growing corn for fuel. Farmers are growing less wheat in favor of corn. That is why wheat prices have jumped up. The price of rice has gone up because the demand for rice has gone up because of the lack of wheat being grown in favor of growing corn for fuel. Tolman seemed to overlook these connections.

Corn based ethanol is the key component to the rise in food prices which leads to the global food shortage. This is obvious. This chain reaction was made possible by the strength of lobbyists for ethanol producers and corn growers in the Midwest. The lobbyists convinced the lawmakers to make favorable conditions for the corn based ethanol industry. Because of this, ethanol producers, corn growers, as well as oil companies and auto manufacturers made a boat load of cash at the expense of the American consumer. The whole thing was sold to the American consumer by saying that corn based ethanol would do three things. It would lessen our dependence on foreign oil. It would make gas at the pump cheaper. It would clean up the environment. As discussed, corn based ethanol did not do any of this and did the exact opposite of what it claimed. Corn based ethanol prolongs our dependence on foreign oil as an additive to gasoline. Corn based ethanol increases the price of gas at the pump because ethanol is more expensive than gasoline. Corn based ethanol requires large amounts of dirty fossil fuel to be burned in order to manufacture it and also emits more carbon emissions into the air in the long run. Before these effects could be understood, ethanol mixed with gasoline has become a federal mandate and the price of corn per bushel has nearly tripled. One can draw the conclusion that the lobbyists for ethanol producers and corn growers have succeeded. The truth about ethanol has just recently come to public attention. Only time will tell if the political backlash against corn based ethanol is real. Hopefully they’ll do something about it.

Works Cited

Black, Edwin. “The Corn Deception-How Politicians and Agribusiness Tried to Silence the
Critics and Promote a Bad Idea.” The Cutting Edge News. 5 May, 2008.
Bodipo-Memba, Alejandro. “Caution Flags are Raised Over the Corn-Based Fuel.”
Detroit Free Press. 9 Aug, 2006.
Christian Science Monitor. “Corn Lobby’s Tall Tale of a Gas Substitute.” 12 May, 2006.
Hoover, Nick. “A Day in the Life of a Lobbyist.” The Agonist. 17 Nov, 2004.
Hughes, Siobhan, et al. “Corn Ethanol Loses Support.” Dowjones.com. 3 May 2008.
Johnson, Robbin S. C. Ford Runge. “Ethanol: Train Wreck Ahead?” Perspectives Fall 2007.
Kelly, Russel. “An Inquiry into Ethanol as a Viable Alternative Fuel Source.”
Koppel, Ted. “Shucking the ‘Corn Lobby’ on Ethanol.” All Things Considered. National
Public Radio. 20 April, 2008.
News Tribune, The. “America Pays Huge Price to Run Cars on Corn.” Tacoma, Washington.
19 Dec, 2007
News Tribune, The. “Corn Ethanol is Not Clean, Green Energy.” Tacoma, Washington. 21
June, 2007
Rosamond, Naylor, et al. “The Ripple Effect: Biofuels, Food Security, and The
Environment”. Environment Nov 2007. Vol 49. Issue 9.
Rushing, Taylor. “Ethanol Part of Food Crisis, says Durbin.” Saint Louis Post-
Dispatch. 28 April, 2008.
Tolman, David. “Corn and Ethanol: Green Getting Greener” National Corn Growers
Association. Power point presentation.
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One response to “The Corn Lobby’s Influence on the Rise of Food Cost and the Global Food Shortage

  1. Thanks for writing this.

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