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Food or fuel?

Something is very wrong with this picture: The United Nations' World Food Program has been hit so hard by skyrocketing grain prices that it may be forced to cut off some food aid to the world's poorest countries, while the United States is planning to turn record quantities of corn into automotive fuel.

The astonishing callousness of burning millions of bushels of grain in gas tanks even as global starvation worsens has apparently never occurred to Congress, the Bush administration or the remaining presidential candidates, all of whom are big boosters of ethanol. The mania for passing ever-bigger mandates on biofuels reached such a pitch last year that the 2007 energy bill called for a whopping 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. In order to ratchet up to that level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered that 9 billion gallons be blended with gasoline this year. Most of that will be ethanol made from corn; last year, the U.S. produced 5.8 billion gallons of the stuff.

Cereal grain import prices for the world's poorest countries are expected to rise 35% for the second consecutive year in 2008, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Droughts and floods have reduced grain stocks, and demand is rising in part because better living standards in developing countries are bringing a change in diet -- Indians and Chinese are eating more meat, so more grain is needed for livestock feed. And ethanol is making a bad situation worse. The U.S. is the world's top corn exporter, and about a quarter of last year's crop went to ethanol. Food prices, meanwhile, have increased so much that the World Food Program says it will have to raise $500 million more just to carry out its scheduled operations.

It needn't come down to a choice between conserving oil or feeding the poor. The U.N. has developed a tool for assessing the impacts of biofuel production on food security, something Congress never bothered to study before passing its extravagant mandate. Until the environmental and economic effects of biofuels have been thoroughly examined, the government should stop trying to squeeze more energy out of corn cobs. Meanwhile, the U.S. is obliged to contribute more to world food aid in order to undo some of the damage it has wrought.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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