Wednesday, April 16, 2008

High cost of fallout

During the past few years, I have written a couple of times about biofuels – making diesel or gasoline out of stuff other than oil. Most anything that contains hydrogen, oxygen and carbon can be turned into fuel – including old tires, and even diapers.

Recently, we’ve seen an upsurge in ethanol production, fueled by a strong push from the Bush administration and strong lobbying by companies that had been struggling to make their ethanol units prosper. Corn’s a great crop for making ethanol, and corn growers and processors have been harvesting the benefits of growing demand (as well as tax breaks, subsidies, etc.).

Never mind that ethanol doesn’t contain the same energy as an equal amount of gasoline, say, or that it takes so much energy to produce that the net saving for the planet is dubious. Nor that farmers are plowing under other crops to grow corn.

Never mind until now, that is. The international news has been reporting for weeks that the mad dash toward biofuels is cutting into food production and raising food prices not just here – bought a gallon of milk lately? – but around the world.

Many of those experiencing the fallout can least afford it. (Maybe some of those are you?)

Or not. But in an interconnected world, we have to at least wonder how what we do affects our neighbors (if we can’t love them as we love ourselves).

In 2007, for instance, the skyrocketing price of corn put the bite on Mexican wallets because corn is a major staple of Mexican diets. Small family farms in Mexico that grew corn found that increasing American production had driven the price down below their subsistence level. Farmers went under – or went north to look for work. Some likely wound up helping harvest some of that U.S.-grown corn that had put them on the road to begin with.

Other factors played into this – bad weather, political instability, the lure of a better overall life. But corn, like tobacco and cotton in another era and another place, is a crop of potential trouble.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t explore every avenue to alternative energy. We SHOULD explore EVERY avenue and also consider the impact of it on ourselves and the rest of the world.

Wonder if you can turn kudzu into biodiesel?