One of the myriad ways that my upbringing was "un-American" is that I was raised to be very skeptical of simple solutions, as well as the status quo. As this country begins it's slow emergence out of denial, and begins to recognize that we are running out of oil, we seem to be latching on to "quick fixes" and simple answers in a way that is note-worthy even for this young country. One example: biofuel.
I have to admit that I was innitally taken in ~I mean, it sounds so lovely: swap out icky, poluting and unsustainable fosil fuels for stuff so pure, clean and organic that -in it's raw form- you can literally eat it. But, you see, that is in fact one of the primary problems. You can not have your grain and burn it too.
In an increasingly hungery world, cars claimed a substantial portion of the world's grain consumption this year, according to a enlightening and deeply disternbing article from the Earth Policy Institute.
"In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people."
In some U.S. Corn Belt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, a staggering 55 ethanol plants are operating or have been proposed. According to Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner, if all these plants are built, they would use all the corn grown in Iowa. In South Dakota, a top-ten corn-growing state, ethanol distilleries are already claiming over half of the corn harvest.
We are all familiar with the cycles of supply and demand, as the price of oil climbs, it becomes increasingly profitable to convert farm commodities into automotive fuel, either ethanol or biodiesel. Whenever the food value of a commodity drops below its fuel value, the market will convert it into fuel. We are currently willing to pay 70 a barrel for oil, what does that say about what we soon might be paying for a bushel of corn, and thus an ear of corn for our dinner table.
The U.S. investment in biofuel production is threatening to draw grain away from the production of meat, milk, and eggs. And, most seriously, the vast number of distilleries in operation, under construction, and in the planning stages threatens to reduce grain available for direct human consumption. Simply put, the stage is being set for a head-on collision between the world’s 800 million affluent automobile owners and the world's food consumers. Given the insatiable appetite of cars for fuel, higher grain prices appear inevitable. The only question is when food prices will rise and by how much. Indeed, in recent months, wheat and corn prices have risen by one fifth.
Think about how many grocery item contain corn, grain, milk and eggs, rather rules out the line "let them eat cake. For the 2 billion people in the world who spend over half of their income on food, rising grain prices can quickly become life threatening. The broader risk is that rising food prices could spread hunger and generate political instability in low-income countries that import grain, including Mexico. If ethanol distillery demand for grain continues its explosive growth, driving grain prices to dangerous highs, the U.S. government may find themselves in a whole new "war without end" in the form of an unfolding global conflict over food.
There are alternatives to using food-based fuels, alternative to fuel-based transportation, as well as alternatives to single passenger transportation. While there are no alternatives to food for people.
One immediately available alternative would be to simply raise auto fuel efficiency standards by 20 percent, which would give us the equivalent of the 3 percent gain in automotive fuel supplies from ethanol everal times over—and at a fraction of the cost. Other alternatives include shifting some of the current investment in biofule production to investing in public transport could reduce overall dependence on cars.Similarly, if wind-rich countries such as the United States invest heavily in wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the grid, cars could run primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.
No matter how one crunches the numbers, the simple fact is that we will need to reduce our energy consumption, which was never sustainable by any standard; and in seeking alternatives, we must keep in mind that the days of simple and cheap answers are behind us. They are in fact what has brought us here.