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It Look Like We’re Hurting You,
But We’re Only Trying To Help You

how biofuels raise the price of food globally
and actually hurt the environment

Now, I know I’m a 24-hour drive-by media junkie, but I heard a few days ago in one of the television news reports that Sam’s and Costco were limiting the number of bulk packages of wheat one person could purchase. I heard this and I thought, what the Hell does one person need many 25 pound packages of rice for, I once bought one of those 25 pound bags of rice and it literally lasted me a few years. But They said they were doing this not because they were low on food, but because prices of foodstuffs like corn and wheat and rice have been going up, and they didn’t want places (like restaurants) to hoard these things to help them turn a profit in sales the next year.
And you know, I have heard of price of foodstuffs like wheat for this upcoming year, and I thought that we don’t use that much of it, and the basic and simple side of me just hoped that the price of frozen pizzas (which I wait to buy until they are on sale for at least 5/$10 before I purchase), and less than two weeks later, I saw those stupid frozen pizzas on sale for 6/$10, so I figured what the Hell, this cost of food going up isn’t apparently causing that much of a problem for me.
But the problem with the rising costs of foods now is because of America’s new attempts to do something to reduce our dependence on oil. I’ve heard the pleas: keep your thermostat a degree or two lower in the winter, turn off lights when you’re not in the room (I even watched an episode of Mythbusters a while ago that dispelled the rumor that leaving a light on while you are not in the room does not accurately offset the surge of power needed to turn on the light in the first place), use public transportation instead of using your cars (or better yet, stop using those gas-guzzling SUVs when you can use a more fuel-efficient car), or purchase local foods (so you’re not paying for the hauling of your specialized food by truck across the country ). And okay, I try to do that (I don’t turn on lights unless I really need them, I drive a 32-34 highway mpg Saturn instead of an Hummer), but it’s hard to purchase locally gown foods unless you happen to see a temporary shack at the side of a road near a farmer’s field to purchase anything, and if you live in the city, it’s even harder to find food grown a close distance to you.
But all of this made me think of the fact that we’re trying to do something to help the environment and reduce our dependency on middle-eastern oil, and often when we try to do something to help the economy, we shortsightedly do something we think will help but actually hurts more. For example, news stations still tell people that the best thing they can do is to still purchase a hybrid car, but (see “A Different Light on the Global Warming Debate”, at http://www.janetkuypers.com/kuypers/prose/2007/a-different-light-on-the-gobal-warming-debate.htm, which is also in the October 2007 issue of cc&d, v177, at http://scars.tv/ccdissues/ccd177oct07/ccd177oct07.htm) the smelting and mining of the nickel (which has to be done in Canada) causes so much damage to the landscape that nothing can grow there, and then it goes to a nickel refinery in Europe, and then it goes to China, where they produce “nickel foam” so it is in the needed form for the battery for a hybrid car.
Oh, that and a hybrid battery lasts for only 100,000 miles, so if you keep your car, you’ll have to have the world go through this process again so you can continue to drive your car.
Sorry, that was a long example, but it seems that when we try to do something to “help,” we often end up doing more damage then the problem even did. And the scary thing is that instead of individuals purchasing hybrid cars, nations are now taking measures to “help,” and they may be causing damage on a much more global scale.
Because places like Brazil are allowing the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest for crops. Now, the Amazon rainforest (and other forest lands) are vanguard for storing carbon (you know, plants need the carbon and exhale oxygen, living plants are good for counteracting what we humans do, and I feel like I should have a greenhouse for all of the plants I keep alive in my home now), but because the world needs more land for growing things for producing fuel (which means the clearing of uninhabited land, which spells deforestation), the only natural place left for helping the environment is being destroyed so we can generate more fuel to heat our homes and drive our cars (and yes, even if you don’t drive, that applies to the footprint we cause by all of the trucks in the United States carrying your food across the country so it can get to you). John Carter (a Texas rancher who led a Reconnaissance unit in Desert Storm and also owns 20,000 acres of land in Brazil’s Mato Grosso) has witnessed the land rush first-hand, and seen the mass destruction of forestland for things like the planting soybean crops, which are promoted as a gas-alternative.
“You can’t protect (the rainforest),” Carter said, “There’s too much money to be made in tearing it down.”
Since biofuels have become the in-phrase to tout, and ethanol (ethyl alcohol from plant-based matter) quintupled in the United States in the past year, and is mandated for another five-fold increase, and Europe is doing the same thing. But doing this is actually accelerating global warming. As corn is harvested, forests are destroyed, giving our land less of an ability to fight the excess carbon in the atmosphere. And one fifth of the U.S. corn crop is used for fuel this way, which means (remember, supply and demand) raises the price of corn products I the food market. Because corn it touted as the oil savior (when it’s actually a very ineffective way to produce fuel versus other crops frown around the world), many soybean growers in the U.S. are actually switching their corp production, which is even causing soybean prices to rise. So to meet the global demand for these foods, countries like Brazil are expanding their fields into ranches, and to clear land for cattle and grazing pastures, rainforest land is cleared.
And the things is, corn (and even switchgrass, remember President Bush mentioning switchgrass in a speech once as being our salvation from our oil dependency) end up costing more than using actual oil-derived gasoline because of their global effects on our food supply and our short-sightedness in trying to solve a problem with an inappropriate patch.
According to Time, “One groundbreaking new study in Science concluded that when this deforestation effect is taken into account, corn ethanol and soy biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline… Only sugarcane based ethanol is efficient enough to cut emissions by more than it takes to produce the fuel.”
And when it comes to corn, the amount of corn needed to be grown to produce enough fuel to fill up the tank of an ethanol-fueled SUV is enough corn to feed a person for an entire year.
Even if the U.s., which is the leader in the world in corn and soybean production, used 100% of both crops for fuel, it would only be enough for 20% of on-road fuel consumption.
And you wonder why the prices of foods are going up.

This is a phenomenon that you can see happening around the world. After reading a Time article (April 7, 2008), I learned that this ripple effect can be seen everywhere. “Indonesia has bulldozed and burned so much wilderness to grow palm oil trees for biodiesel that its ranking among the world’s top carbon emitters has surged from 21st to third… Malaysia is converting forests into palm oil farms…and running out of uncultivated land.” And yes, Brazil is only deforesting a small portion of the rainforest for planning sugarcane (which actually is a more effective use of food for ethanol than corn), but because of that trickle-down plan of the use of corn in other fields offsetting food globally, land is being destroyed in Brazil for other purposes.
According to Time (in the article “The Clean Energy Scam,” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1725975,00.html), “a Rhode Island—size chunk of the Amazon was deforested in the second half of 2007 and even more was degraded by fire.” And some scientists believe that the Amazon rainforest could be reduced to “to a savanna or even a desert.”
“Deforestation accounts for 20% of all current carbon emissions. So unless the world can eliminate emissions from all other sources—cars, power plants, factories, even flatulent cows—it needs to reduce deforestation or risk an environmental catastrophe.”
And to prove that corn and deforestation isn’t the answer, a Study from Tim Searchinger, a Princeton scholar and former Environmental Defense attorney, concluded that overall, corn ethanol has a payback period of about 167 years because of the deforestation it triggers.

Since Brazil is surging ahead in much the same way the United States did when it was starting to grow as a country, they do not see anything wrong with some aspects of what they are doing (we didn’t see anything wrong with the way we treated the Native American Indians in this country either). The do have guidelines in land owners only being able to deforest 20% of their land, but Blairo Maggi (the Mato Grosso province’s Governor) even said “There’s no money for enforcement, so people do what they want.” As pointed out in the Time article, “Maggi has been a leading pioneer on the Brazilian frontier, and it irks him that critics in the U.S.—which cleared its forests and settled its frontier 125 years ago.” Maggi said, “But we want to achieve what you achieved in America. We have the same dreams for our families. Are you afraid of the competition?”

So it seems that biofuels, which are causing food prices to rise globally, are not necessarily a part of the solution for global warming and reducing our dependence on foreign oil — in the way we are using corn, these biofuels seem to be a part of the problem. And if we’re thinking of Global Warming (and not just reducing our dependence on oil form the Middle East), we should be doing more than trying to only switch to biofuels. They say to use more energy-efficient light bulbs (though energy-efficient CFLs have methyl mercury in them, which is actually a man-made molecule, and a lot more dangerous than other forms of mercury, and we have no proper method of removing it from recycling the glass in these bulbs, so this stuff gets seeped into our soil, and this harmful stuff gets back to us…), and we need more energy-efficient homes and lifestyles. When you say that (change your lifestyle, cut back on things, deprive yourself of things) it reminds me of how Objectivist arguments propose that environmentalists aren’t interested in saving the planet but in restricting humans, so I’m not necessarily interested. But if I have to drive a car, I’ll use the fuel-efficient Saturn instead of paying too much money for an SUV, and if I have to work, I’ll do it without turning on every light bulb in the house (I know I’ve got a computer on to write this, but I haven’t turned on a light to work because of windows bringing natural light into my office). If we’re not willing to restrict our life to latch onto a plan which some say without thinking will help the environment, we can at least think about the choices we make in our everyday lives, and see how living smartly can not only save us money, but also leave less of a carbon footprint behind.

Chicago poet Janet Kuypers
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