I, like most Americans, love bread. Crusty, warm, and fresh-baked bread is a carb overload I am willing to indulge in even if it means a few extra minutes of running. But the American love affair with all things baked might be at jeopardy. We all know that oil and water don’t mix, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that wheat and ethanol are a bad combination as well. New research from the University of Illinois indicates that the high prices for wheat, as well as corn and soy, are here to stay.
The research confirms what common sense should have indicated long ago: using land to grow crops for combustion as opposed to consumption, reduces the total amount of land devoted to growing food and increases food costs. Researchers Darrel Good and Scott Irwin — both professors of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois — note that the increase in ethanol production will have significant impacts on wheat, soy and corn prices for decades. In reality, this will mean continually rising prices across the board — meat and dairy that rely on corn and soy feed, baked and snack foods made with wheat and soy, corn and soy oils and anything cooked with those oils, and even vegetarian foods that rely on soy. In a nutshell, everything.
In fact, wheat prices are rising so quickly that even the industry is getting in on the action. In July the American Baking Association released a statement calling on Congress and the government to take actions to lower food prices. At the time, the Consumer Price Index showed that baked good prices had risen 2 percent in a one month period. White flour prices at the time had gone up by more than one-third within the year. ABA President and CEO Robb MacKie called on Congress and the government to act by, “repealing detrimental food for fuel ethanol mandates.”
While the University of Illinois research is appreciated, it is in fact nothing new. Biofuels, especially ethanol, have proven themselves to be not only unsustainable, but also to actually increase greenhouse gas emissions, as a Science article detailed back in January. But Good and Irwin go one step further to note that even switching from ethanol to a different type of biofuel is not the answer. Since land available for production is limited, switching biofuel crops would still be producing fuel instead of food, and prices will continue to increase. “We would have to steal land away from corn to grow a different energy-related crop.” Good said.
So what does this mean for America’s food prices and energy future? Well, unfortunately it looks like high prices are here to stay — at least until we give up our ethanol mandates. But more importantly, such research truly shows that America’s energy needs cannot be met at the expense of nutrition. In times of a food crisis and continually rising prices, we cannot continue to grow fuel instead of food. We do need a new generation of renewable energy initiatives in this country, but when ethanol is grown with oil-based fertilizers and pesticides, it cannot be considered renewable. America’s energy policies need to focus on wind, solar, geothermal, and other forms of truly sustainable and renewable energy options that have huge potential to provide power to our nation. A focus on green energy initiatives will create jobs, reform a crumbling grid system, and provide sustainable long-term energy solutions with limited greenhouse gas emissions, while keeping bread in our bellies.