German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, the world's top sugar cane grower and a big ethanol producer, said this week that soaring prices for rice, milk, and other staple foods should not be blamed on the push in the U.S. and Europe to replace oil with biofuels. “Food is expensive because the world wasn't prepared to see millions of Chinese people, millions of Indians and Africans eating three times a day,” Lula said. (Bloomberg) The diversion of grains to make ethanol has been blamed, along with high oil prices, for price hikes that have caused food riots around the world. (The New York Times, free registration)
What the commentators said
It’s time to stop the madness of using food to make fuel, said the Montreal Gazette in an editorial. Converting grains into ethanol and other biofuels was supposed to help the environment, and “powerful farm lobbies” around the world pushed through subsidies for ethanol producers. But the energy gains from this boondoggle are minor, and they certainly aren’t worth the hunger they cause.
"How much is ethanol to blame?" said The Dallas Morning News in an editorial. "Some experts say a quarter to a third, others say 10 to 15 percent—but there's no denying that the more U.S. acreage pushed into producing corn for ethanol, the higher prices go." And unlike other causes, such as oil prices and drought, corn-based ethanol is one thing we can do something about.
Dropping biofuels would be a mistake, said Newt Gingrich in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It is in America's best interest to reduce the world's dependency on oil from unstable regions.” Biofuels are no miracle cure, but they’re an important part of the energy mix, along with solar, wind, hydrogen, and nuclear power.
Ethanol production isn’t the only thing to blame for a doubling of world food prices since 2001, said Vincent Reinhart in The Wall Street Journal. Central banks have contributed by setting interest rates too low and overstimulating demand, and rising oil prices have not helped. But there’s no denying that “force-feeding the inefficient production of ethanol” is only making matters worse.
That’s putting it mildly, said Mark Lynas in the U.K.’s New Statesman. “What biofuels do is undeniable: they take food out of the mouths of starving people and divert them to be burned as fuel in the car engines of the world's rich consumers. This is, in the words of the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, nothing less than a ‘crime against humanity.’”