Food as Fuel, Again

Reason‘s Ronald Bailey examines the push for more bio-fuels and decides perhaps it’s not such a great idea. On the surface, using corn as a fuel product seems to be a good idea, but Bailey does a fine dissecting why this is not, in fact, the case. As you might expect, a libertarian like Bailey begins with the market–due to increased demand from non-food sources (i.e. the ethanol industry), the price of corn has increased. This, in turn, has caused the price of meat to increase, as most major meat producers use corn as a primary source of feed (we’ll come to back this a minute). The increased demand for corn has also caused many farms to scale back other crop production, thus also raising the price of that produce due to a scaled back supply.

As we increase the amount of corn used for fuel production, many people will feel the squeeze.

Another way to look at it is that it takes 450 pounds of corn to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon gas tank. Four hundred and fifty pounds of corn supplies enough calories to feed a person for one year. The USDA projects that in 2010 the ethanol industry will consume 2.6 billion bushels of corn. A bushel weighs 56 pounds, so a quick calculation yields the result that 2.6 billion bushels of corn could supply enough calories to feed nearly 325 million people for a year.

Keep in mind, too, that currently, ethanol production is rather inefficient, meaning producers use quite a bit of energy to produce far less ethanol. Corn (and its by-products) as human fuel is far more fuel efficient.

Back to cows.

But why focus blame on gas-guzzling SUVs? After all, one-third of the world’s grain is now fed to animals to produce meat. If we’re really worried about the world’s poor, shouldn’t we give up not only SUVs, but brisket, bacon and breasts too? The amount of grain that actually goes into producing a pound of meat is controversial. However, the non-profit consortium of 37 scientific societies, the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology estimates that it takes around 3 kilograms of grains to produce 1 kilogram of meat. In 1999, CAST calculated that “an annual rate of growth in cereal production between 1.1 and 1.4 percent, i.e., a lower rate than in recent decades, should meet needs for both food grains and the feed grains required to meet the [world’s] projected per capita demand for meat, milk, and eggs.” When all is said and done meat is still food. Biofuels will now compete with meat production for grain supplies.

Cows are remarkably efficient animals, able to turn grass into protein (if we were only so lucky). Yet most beef ranchers, in an effort to get bigger steers in less time, fill them full of grain (primarily corn). Ironically, grass-fed beef is considered a luxury item (though thanks to a growing number of small, often organic, ranchers, this is changing). But, of course, Bailey is correct–meat is still food, as we haven’t figured out a way to toss sirloin into our gas tanks. But, when a more efficient way of producing by all accounts better meat exists, why do we choose another alternative?