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Starving the People To Feed the Cars
However, it is Malaysia, the leading producer and exporter of palm oil -- the most widely used vegetable oil -- that plans to lead the world in biodiesel production. Within the past 18 months, it has approved 52 proposals to build palm-oil refineries, raising doubts as to whether there will be enough palm oil to satisfy its export commitments and to feed these refineries.
And in the United States, investors are jumping on the biofuel bandwagon, pumping billions into new ethanol distilleries and biodiesel refineries. Last year, the United Sates produced more than 4 billion gallons of ethanol. Corn use by the ethanol distilleries has increased from 18 million tons in 2001 to an estimated 55 million tons from the 2006 crop, or nearly one-sixth of the U.S. grain harvest.
In some Corn Belt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, a staggering 55 ethanol plants are already operating or are planned. Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner observes that if all these plants are completed, they would use virtually the entire Iowa corn harvest.
With so many distilleries being built, livestock producers fear there may not be enough corn to feed animals, possibly leading to shortages in milk, eggs, beef, pork and poultry. And because the United States supplies 70 percent of world corn exports, importing countries -- such as Egypt, Japan and Mexico -- should be worried, too.
In agricultural terms, our appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable: The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol would feed one person for a full year. If the United States converted its entire grain harvest into ethanol, it would satisfy less than 16 percent of its automotive fuel needs.
Yet, no one in the United States or internationally is monitoring the escalating diversion of grain to fuel distilleries to ensure that it will not disrupt food supplies. Instead, a market free-for-all dominates, with commodities going to the highest bidder.
All of this is unfolding as the world's farmers are trying to feed 76 million additional people each year. In six of the past seven years, world grain consumption has exceeded production. As a result, the reserve of public and private grain stocks that we rely on as a carryover from harvest to harvest has fallen to the lowest level in 34 years.
There are alternatives to this food-based fuels scenario. The equivalent of a 3 percent gain in U.S. automotive fuel supplies from ethanol could be achieved several times over -- and at a fraction of the cost -- simply by raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards by 20 percent. We can also shift to highly efficient gas-electric hybrid plug-in vehicles. And if we invest in wind farms, feeding cheap electricity into the grid, cars could run primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.
Like earlier civilizations, we face a choice. When the Sumerians got into trouble on the food front, they substituted barley for wheat, which delayed but did not prevent their ultimate decline. We are similarly substituting ethanol for oil, treating the symptoms rather than the cause. The question is whether we will move quickly enough to reduce our dependence on oil, or whether we will continue with business as usual. Will we choose to follow the Icelanders, or the Sumerians and Mayans?
Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of "Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble" (Earth Policy Institute).