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Are biofuels spiking global food, feed prices?

Are biofuels spiking global food, feed prices?

In our persistent quest for renewable energy sources and desire to reduce dependence on foreign oil, the United States has largely invested in producing ethanol made from corn.

“Under the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard, U.S. refineries are required to blend their gasoline with a certain percentage of biofuel each year. The rule has helped the United States reduce its dependence on oil,” according to the Washington Post. “But it also requires a lot of corn. In 2012, the standard will require 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol.”

But with this summer’s drought (which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said was the worst since 1956) ravaging corn fields, experts are starting to wonder if it’s smart to continue using up to 40 percent of 2012’s corn crop for ethanol.

NPR’s The Salt recently reported on the implications of using corn ethanol, and consequently, elevated global food prices. After researchers from the New England Complex Sciences Institute examined the caloric content in corn ethanol, they calculated if people were to subsist on 2,100 calories per day (very feasible), “22.9 people could be fed for a day with the corn used to make ethanol in a 16 gallon tank.”

Corn prices have risen to record highs this year—reaching $8.49 per bushel in August before falling to the current price, $7.35 per bushel.

No wonder cattle farmers have been plumping their livestock with candy such as chocolate bars, gummy worms and marshmallows—it’s cheaper than feed. “While corn goes for about $315 a ton, ice-cream sprinkles can be had for as little as $160 a ton,” according to CNN Money.

Should we relax corn ethanol regulations?

I’m all for the advancement of green technology. Incessant drilling for oil fosters a culture of unsustainable fuel dependency, leading to sprawling communities built around interstates and highways. Drilling also places delicate oceanic ecosystems at risk (Gulf Coast, anyone?).

But it’s disputed that biofuels are better for the environment. In a 2008 study from Princeton University, researchers found that rather than reducing greenhouse emissions by 20 percent, biofuels may “nearly double greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increase greenhouse gases for 167 years.” Farmers worldwide, the study reasons, are more prone to replace natural forests and grasslands with crops, reducing carbon offset.

What a sticky situation—and I'm not talking about candy-covered cattle hooves.

Are rising global food prices enough to stem ethanol production? Should we continue to alter our dependence on oil—whether foreign or domestic? Given that Shell started drilling offshore Alaska last month, it’s apparent that oil still reigns over biofuels, at least for now.

Should we continue to seek corn-based fuels? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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