Unintended or not, the consequences were predictable
It’s hard to imagine what politicians and corporate chiefs are intending to do by crafting a corn-based ethanol boom, beyond rigging public policy (and raiding the public purse) to generate huge private profits.
But whatever their intentions, they’re methodically creating environmental and social disasters — while brazenly brandishing the “green” flag.
Before I go on, let me make two points for the millionth time:
- Without extended, ongoing, and financially generous government intervention, no market for corn ethanol would exist.
- If ethanol delivers any net energy gain at all over petroleum gasoline, it’s razor thin.
Here are some of the consequences — let’s not dignify them with “unintended,” since they were so very predictable — of corn ethanol fever.
— Urged on by ethanol-inflated corn prices, U.S. farmers are planting the largest corn crop in history, the USDA recently predicted.
The agency expects growers to plant 89 million acres of corn. That’s 10 million more than last year, and not since 1946 has corn acreage reached 85 million acres.
Even before the big jump, corn was by far our most widely planted crop — and growing it required a heavier dose of synthetic fertilizer than any other U.S. crop by a factor of three.
Boosting corn production by nearly 13 percent should chill the spine of any green-minded person, because fertilizer runoff destroys water-borne life from Midwestern streams through the Mississippi clear down to the Gulf of Mexico. It also evaporates in the air, creating a greenhouse gas 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
— In their fever to increase yield to take advantage of high corn prices, farmers are scrambling to plant genetically modified seeds.
Salon recently ran a good analysis of why showering the earth with genetically modified corn seeds, many of them “triple-stacked” (i.e, combining three separate GM traits), could wreak all manner of unpredictable havoc.
Meanwhile, over on Der Spiegel’s English-language site, there’s a provocative piece on how GM crops with insecticide traits, like Bt corn, may be behind the mysterious bee-colony collapse. So far, evidence is sketchy, but as one concerned scientist, who studied the GM/bee collapse link until research money ran out, tells Der Spiegel:
Those who have the money are not interested in this sort of research, and those who are interested don’t have the money.
— Food prices are rising — and will continue to do so.
I don’t have much to add to Clark Williams-Derry’s great post on that topic.
But I will say this. Many people will be tempted to hail rising U.S. food prices, which are the world’s lowest as a percentage of disposable income and reflect massive costs successfully externalized by the food industry.
But jacking up food prices in an era of stagnant median wages only squeezes low-income people. This is not the way to revalue food in the United States. And price hikes are already roiling the urban poor in places like Mexico. To what end?
— Land prices are soaring in the Midwest — squeezing out new farmers who want to grow something besides GM corn. The Christian Science Monitor reports that in some counties in Iowa, land prices have jumped by a third in the last year alone.
Believe it or not, there are young farmers who want to grow, using organic methods, a variety of vegetables for their neighbors to eat, and not genetically modified industrial inputs.
The above-linked CSM article profiles one, and I wrote about the phenomenon in Victual Reality a while back.
But the government-engineered ethanol boom threatens to throttle this socially and environmentally promising trend by pricing such pioneers out of the market.
— One word: coal. Please. This is insane, possibly criminal, and if you need any more reason to recoil from ethanol’s growing coal addiction, please read Jessica Tzerman’s beautifully written, quietly angry Gristmill posts on coal-country devastation in Appalachia.
Can anyone think of a bigger, more successful, or more insidious greenwash in history than corn-based ethanol? How are we going to stop this runaway train?
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