John McCain has joined with 23 other Senate Republicans to call for ethanol production mandates to be eased in light of rising grain prices. McCain did not vote on the 2007 energy bill that contains President Bush’s new bio-fuel requirements.
Food prices have increased substantially worldwide and CNN reports that riots have occurred in Egypt, Haiti, Yemen, Bangladesh and other nations. Johnny-on-the-spot, the United Nations formed a task force to discuss the problem, a definitive move that’s sure to put a chicken in every pot. Or not.
"Although many factors may contribute to high food costs, food-to-fuel mandates are the only factors that can be reconsidered in light of current circumstances," they wrote. "American families are feeling the strain of these food-to-fuel mandates in the grocery aisle and are growing concerned about the emerging environmental concerns of growing corn-based ethanol."
The GOP senators, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, said up to 30 percent of the U.S. corn crop could be diverted to fuel production this year. One of those who opposed the bill — and a co-signer of Monday’s letter — said the ethanol mandates are now widely considered a "policy blunder" that Congress should roll back.
"People are now starving to death because of this transfer from food to fuel," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
In the strictest sense Inhofe’s statements are undoubtedly true. Regardless of the price of food there will always be those on the edge of starvation; ergo, any price increase will cause someone, somewhere to perish. But did Inhofe make a drastic overstatement?
Presidential spokesman spokesman Scott Stanzel thinks so, saying that the bill’s biofuel requirements have are responsible for only about 1.5 percent of the increase in food prices.
To me it seems inevitable that continued reliance on grain-sourced ethanol will lead to steady increases in food prices. Burning food is a uniquely inefficient way to move people and goods around. As I quoted C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer previously:
Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn…
That much corn equates to enough calories to feed a person for an entire year, albeit at a subsistence level. Inhofe’s over-the-top reaction is that only for the time being, should the price run-up continue.
Of course, this begs the question: If Egyptians, et al, know that they are dependent on food imports and that the price might increase dramatically, what are they doing to protect themselves?
The answer, I suspect, is the same as Americans ought to be asking about our dependence on foreign oil. Not only is the parallel a close one, but our half-hearted efforts to mitigate that dependence are a significant contributing factor in grain price increases.