How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor

THE ETHANOL BUBBLE

In 1974, as the United States was reeling from the oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Congress took the first of many legislative steps to promote ethanol made from corn as an alternative fuel. On April 18, 1977, amid mounting calls for energy independence, President Jimmy Carter donned his cardigan sweater and appeared on television to tell Americans that balancing energy demands with available domestic resources would be an effort the "moral equivalent of war." The gradual phaseout of lead in the 1970s and 1980s provided an additional boost to the fledgling ethanol industry. (Lead, a toxic substance, is a performance enhancer when added to gasoline, and it was partly replaced by ethanol.) A series of tax breaks and subsidies also helped. In spite of these measures, with each passing year the United States became more dependent on imported petroleum, and ethanol remained marginal at best.

Now, thanks to a combination of high oil prices and even more generous government subsidies, corn-based ethanol has become the rage. There were 110 ethanol refineries in operation in the United States at the end of 2006, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Many were being expanded, and another 73 were under construction. When these projects are completed, by the end of 2008, the United States' ethanol production capacity will reach an estimated 11.4 billion gallons per year. In his latest State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called on the country to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel a year by 2017, nearly five times the level currently mandated.

The push for ethanol and other biofuels has spawned an industry that depends on billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, and not only in the United States. In 2005, global ethanol production was 9.66 billion gallons, of which Brazil produced 45.2 percent (from sugar cane) and the United States 44.5 percent (from corn). Global production of biodiesel (most of it in Europe), made from oilseeds, was almost one billion gallons.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis