Seven years ago Indur Goklany, an economist formerly with the U.S. Department of the Interior and associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since its inception in 1988 as an author, expert reviewer, and U.S. delegate to the organization, concluded a thorough analysis of the effect of American biofuels policy on the world’s poor with these words:
… the production of biofuels [in the U.S.] may have led to at least 192,000 additional deaths and 6.7 million additional lost DALYs [disability-adjusted life years] in 2010. These estimates are conservative. First, they exclude consideration of a number of health risks that are, in fact, directly related to poverty (e.g., indoor smoke from burning coal, wood and dung indoors; and iron deficiency). Second, the analysis only considered the poverty effects of biofuel production over and above the 2004 level; therefore, it does not provide a full estimate of the effect of all biofuel production. Despite the underestimations, these estimates exceed the WHO’s estimates of the toll of death and disease for global warming.Thus, policies to stimulate biofuel production, in part to reduce the alleged impacts of global warming on public health, particularly in developing countries, may actually have increased death and disease globally.
That annual total was representative of all the years from 2004 onward and has continued to be applicable in the intervening seven.
How did biofuel policy have such ghastly effects? By diverting vast amounts of corn (in some years a full half the crop), of which the U.S. raises about a third of the global total, from food (whether directly for people or indirectly through livestock) to fuel. Klaus Kaiser points out:
The whole U.S. produces somewhere around 15 billion bushels (BB) of corn a year at a rate of ca. 145 bushels per acre. Roughly, that’s 1/3 of the entire world production. Nearly 1/3 of the entire U.S. production comes from Iowa (2.7 BB), Illinois (2.3 BB), Nebraska (1.7 BB), Minnesota (1.5 BB), and Indiana (0.9 BB). Of that bountiful harvest, in the order of 25% are being converted via fermentation and distillation into ethanol, resulting in ~2.9 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn.
To add insult to injury—or, rather, mortality—the resulting gasoline-and-ethanol fuel renders fewer miles per gallon while accelerating engine wear.
Nonetheless, the gruesome policy remains in place.
Why? Not because ethanol production reduces carbon dioxide emissions, which for several years was the rationale the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered for the Renewable Fuel Standard that requires its mixture into the nation’s fuel supply. When we account for its full life cycle, from growing and harvesting corn to transporting it to refineries to transporting ethanol from refineries to gas stations and then burning it in our vehicles, it turns out that using it leads to higher carbon dioxide emissions.
Why, then? Because American corn farmers benefit from the policy. That’s it. Nobody else does. Not the vehicle owners whose engines wear out faster and whose cars get lower mileage. Not the American taxpayers who fund the subsidies. And certainly not the world’s poor, who pay higher prices not only for corn but also for all grains because the policy artificially reduces their supply.
It’s time to end the ethanol mandate. That means it’s time for Congressmen and Senators from states other than Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Indiana (but they’re welcome to join in, if they have the courage and integrity!) to vote against renewing it during the budget process. Do they have the integrity to put principle ahead of politics?