Starvation Scapegoat: Blaming Population for a Green Problem

Although the search for clean, alternative sources of energy is to be commended in and of itself, the environmentalist movement has a history of overreaching. The ethanol story is a case in point. Of course the farmers are happy that another major, government-subsidized market for their products has arisen — and we at PRI like farmers. But the ethanol story begins with a radical environmental push for renewable energy. And what better source of renewable energy, they argued, than one of the principal crops of America’s farmers: corn.

It turns out that this is a lousy idea from several points of view. First, as studies have demonstrated, it costs twice as much to make a gallon of ethanol from corn as it does for a gallon of gasoline, even though gasoline is nearly twice as efficient. In addition, according to a Cornell University study, although ethanol might burn cleaner than gasoline, the amount of oil and coal that must be consumed to produce it is so disproportionately huge that ethanol production is actually contributing to the energy crisis, not helping to resolve it. The huge machines that plant, fertilize, and harvest the corn used to make ethanol run on diesel, after all, and the fermentation plants run on electricity.

Not only is ethanol not worth the cost of producing it, the drive to make ever more ethanol is cutting severely into the food supply. According to an article published last year by Business Week, the dent in American food production alone has been dramatic. “In the U.S., last year’s [corn] harvest was 10.5 billion bushels, the third-largest crop ever,” it reads. “But instead of going into the maws of pigs or cattle or people, an increasing slice of that supply is being transformed into fuel for cars. The roughly 5 billion gallons of ethanol made in 2006 by 112 U.S. plants consumed nearly one-fifth of the corn crop. If all the scores of factories under construction or planned go into operation, fuel will gobble up no less than half of the entire corn harvest by 2008.”

The very liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed the finger at politicians: “You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.” But this is only part of the story. Politicians in non-farm states vote for ethanol because it is extremely popular with the environmental lobby.

And what does the radical environmental movement do? Assisted by its minions in the media, it is once again blaming “overpopulation” for rising hunger around the world.

Debate Grows with Philippines’ Population,” writes Bruce Wallace of the Los Angeles Times, “As the food crisis looms, who’s to blame?” The answer from this bastion of liberal sentiment is not, as it should be, environmentalism run amok, but the old stand-by: overpopulation. Although the article concedes that the population growth of the Philippines is slowing dramatically — families are now averaging only 2.5 children — he still sides with the population fear-mongers in blaming the food shortages on too many people. The environmentalists cited in the article deny that their beloved biofuel movement is sending much of the world into starvation. Instead they attempt to shift the blame onto their favorite culprit — the world’s people, in particular, the world’s poor.

This is not surprising. It is well-known that those with a pronounced Green outlook on life believe human beings to be nothing more than a cankerous sore on the face of the earth. Their “environmentally friendly” solutions to perceived problems often ignore the costs that such programs impose, especially upon those least able to bear them, the poor.

The cost of turning massive amounts of food into fuel is, by now, obvious. The Green Revolution, which doubled and tripled grain production around the world, is being undone. Nevertheless, these costs mean little to the Big Green, which seems perfectly happy to manufacture a crisis, as it has in this instance by causing a shortage of food, and then once again lay the blame at the feet of human fertility.

And why not? Thomas Malthus held that overpopulation would naturally be checked by the food shortages and starvation it brought about. He thus advocated a hands-off attitude toward world food crises, insisting that we allow “overpopulated” areas to starve themselves back into balance. The modern environmentalist movement’s approach is similarly deadly — a breathless advocacy of abortion, contraception, and sterilization-with an eye towards reducing the number of people in the world.

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  • Grace Harman

    It makes no sense to use corn -a food crop- to make VERY expensive ethanol “gas” (that uses a lot of power to produce as well), and also to pay farmers NOT to grow food. Nuclear power might be more efficient for energy, and we could be producing food for the poor of the world instead.

  • AnnaMarie53

    The radical “Green Movement” has always had a stubborn tendency to be very myopic in its solutions to any problem. I fear that now that the media has found a way to make money from the whole thing, what with cable television networks calling themselves “Green TV” (the former HGTV”) we are in for a nightmare of goofy ecological outlooks. Naturally, the public school system has jumped on the bandwagon (a vehicle run on ethanol, no doubt) by turning children into tiny evangelists for all things “green.” How do you aargue with nutjobs?

  • I used to work for an animal shelter. The shelter had an advocacy group populated by animal-rights activists. I remember thinking, “Wow, these folks don’t like people very much.” I think that understanding helps one to comprehend where the greens are coming from.

  • merrylamb2001

    There are so many problems with our current approach that it’s hard to know where to begin. Monoculture farming in the midwest is leading to soil erosion, loss of top soil and ultimately the loss of jobs, even in the midwest as farmers have gone to bigger and bigger fields with larger and more expensive (and more fuel consuming) equipment. Meanwhile we use more energy to transport produce from the west coast to the east coast than is in the produce to begin with.

    Certainly some of the solutions lie in conservation by American consumers (when will we stop seeing those gas guzzling SUV’s with a single person in them?). However, if we switched from trucking produce across the country routinely, went back to producing milk, meat and produce more locally we could save energy and not need to attempt to produce ethanol. Now, certainly if we depending on factory farms in California, North Carolina, and Iowa, our food might cost a little bit more. However, the environmental problems would be less, the food might well be safer, and we’d be helping our local economies. As long as poor countries are being encouraged to export food,s o that we can have cheaper food, their people are going to starve. Some of this looks like the Irish potato famine all over again.

    Not all of the “green” people are caught up in this particular mindset. The ethanol thing is as much a production of the corporate mindset as gasoline. Some of us believe that stewardship of the earth is not at odds with openness to life. The Amish seem to live in harmony with the environment and still have large families. They have a very small carbon footprint, but then they aren’t manipulated by the mass media into using shopping as a recreational activity.

    To be green can mean making small changes, like driving less, walking and biking more. It means turning the thermostat down and wearing wool socks and wool sweaters. It might mean growing a garden and buying your eggs from the neighbor who raises chickens. It doesn’t have to mean embracing the theology of death.

  • slbute

    I live in “corn central” and the farmers here have a little different story to tell then Mr. Mosher. The type of corn that produces ethanol is not the type of corn used for human consumption, hence the knee jerk reaction to the ethanol industry causing all this starvation is unsupportable. As we saw with the recent disaster in Myanamar, corrupt and evil governments are more to blame than midwest farmers.

  • sinewave

    I’m not sure whre Mr. Mosher is blaming the farmers. It seems more that the blame is on the environmentalists. And as for the type of corn being different for food or fuel I think that only makes the point o fthe article stronger. If you’re growing corn for fuel you’re not growing corn for food. And on the other hand corn is corn, so as merrylamb puts it, farming only one typoe of crop repeatedly (to keep up with demand) will ruin the soil – ironically this is bad for the environment – yet the Greeners don’t seem to realize or care about this.
    I too, grew up in the rural midwest and really appreciate the hard work of farmers. I want to help them and support them. Ethanol isn’t the answer and doesn’t really make sense to spend more energy to try to save energy.


  • Brian

    I thought the recent editorial from the Wall Street Journal was very interesting. Some summary points.

    All it took for the world to awaken to the folly of subsidized biofuels was a mere global “food crisis,” says the Wall Street Journal. Corn ethanol can now join the scare over silicone breast implants and the pesticide Alar as among the greatest scams of the age. But before we move on to the next green miracle cure, it’s worth recounting how much damage this ethanol political machine is doing.

    For instance:

    1. To create just one gallon of fuel, ethanol slurps up 1,700 gallons of water, according to Cornell’s David Pimentel, and 51 cents of tax credits.
    2. And it still can’t compete against oil without a protective 54-cents-per-gallon tariff on imports and a federal mandate that forces it into our gas tanks.
    3. The record 30 million acres the United States will devote to ethanol production this year will consume almost a third of America’s corn crop while yielding fuel amounting to less than 3 percent of petroleum consumption.

    Now scientists are showing that ethanol will exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions:

    1. Corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 percent savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years, according to a report in the journal Science.
    2. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50 percent.
    3. Markets for biofuel encourage farmers to level forests and convert wilderness into cropland, in order to replace the land diverted from food to fuel, says Princeton’s Timothy Searchinger and colleagues at Iowa State.

  • wgsullivan

    No. 2 yellow corn is and has been raised on the vast majority of U.S. corn acres. No. 2 yellow corn is feed grade corn. Humans do not eat feed grade corn. Cattle, hogs , and chickens eat No 2 yellow corn. Ethanol plants are consuming some of what was fed to animals. A by-product of the ethanol industry is a corn mush that is shipped to feedlots and hog comfinement facilities as a cheap feed source to mix in the feed ration. Whether it’s been fermented by an ethanol plant or it’s shipped directly to the feeding facilities, animals eat the corn and gain weight so as to eventually serve the world as beef, pork, and buffalo wings. It is a fact that a small percentage of acres that had been dedicated to other food crops have been diverted to corn for more profit. That now has slowed because of the volatility of the market and major price increases for inputs to raise the corn. Some input costs are projected to double.
    As I have mentioned in other venues, the old standard joke was a farmer didn’t need to go to Vegas because he gambled everyday in his livelyhood. That joke was never more true than today and never with the stakes so high.
    Ask your representative to champion legislation that helps the small farm and ranch. If inacted the potential for a cheaper and safer food supply would increase greatly and we can feed the world!