Economics for the Earth Blog

Severe drought puts spotlight on harm of corn ethanol mandate

Posted Aug. 2, 2012 / Posted by: Kelly Trout

TO: Editorial boards and journalists
FROM: Michal Rosenoer, biofuels policy campaigner, Friends of the Earth
RE: Severe drought puts spotlight on harm of corn ethanol mandate

As the drought gripping the Midwest wreaks havoc on corn crops, resulting in dramatic drops in projected corn yields, federal policies that force large amounts of corn out of the food supply and into ethanol production are coming under increasing scrutiny -- and for good reason.

The federal corn ethanol mandate -- called the Renewable Fuel Standard -- exacerbates food insecurity and hunger in times of severe drought and other extremes that deplete corn supplies. Meanwhile, corn ethanol production degrades the environment and fails to provide a stable or sustainable alternative to oil. As more than half of all U.S. counties are declared disaster areas and corn prices continue to spike, Congress has a responsibility to rein in federal policies that support this risky and polluting fuel.

Mandates to use corn as fuel heighten rises in food prices

In 2012, the Renewable Fuel Standard mandates the use of 12.2 billion gallons of corn ethanol -- forcing as much as 40 percent of the dwindling U.S. corn crop into ethanol production. Meanwhile, the worsening drought is beginning to impact corn prices -- they’ve spiked upwards of 50 percent since June. When corn prices rise, so do the prices of products that rely on corn. The USDA predicts increases in domestic prices of beef, dairy products and eggs ranging from 3 to 5 percent through 2013. Globally, the U.S. is the largest exporter of corn. Rising food prices will hit people in developing countries that rely on imports of our grains most severely. Higher grain prices in the U.S. are already triggering global food price spikes that parallel those seen in the 2008 global food crisis.

By shrinking the supply of corn for our food system, the Renewable Fuel Standard will continue to push corn prices higher. After the global food crisis of 2008, the World Bank pinned expanded biofuels production as one of the single biggest factors in pushing up food prices. Institutions from the World Trade Organization to the National Academy of Sciences have similarly criticized ethanol expansion for contributing to food price volatility. Looking ahead, a July 2012 study by the New England Complex Systems Institute warned that the drought and record-high temperatures experienced this summer are “poised to trigger an imminent global food crisis” and recommended that lifting mandates to convert corn into ethanol could help avert it.

Corn is a risky and environmentally harmful source of fuel -- especially as climate change hits home

The drought underscores the inability of the corn ethanol industry to provide the U.S. with a safe, secure source of energy. Although we’re using almost half our corn for ethanol, biofuels only account for 10 percent of our transportation fuel and already place undue stress on our food system and environment. When corn yields fall like they have this year, the corn ethanol mandate prioritizes fuel over stable food prices and environmental sustainability. Several studies, including a recent one by the Na­tional Academy of Sciences, have found that the RFS -- 95 percent of which is currently met by corn ethanol -- is increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, degrading water sources and damaging biodiversity.

The problems associated with using crops for fuel will likely intensify in the future. “Stronger, more intense, and longer-lasting drought” will result from a warming climate, concludes Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In the Midwest, scientists predict climate change will make persistent droughts more likely over the next 20 to 50 years. In the new normal of accelerating climate change, corn yields are likely to remain erratic. Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor at Stanford University, found that the combination of climate change impacts and biofuels mandates present the most significant threat to corn price stability over the next few decades.

While climate change makes corn ethanol an unstable energy source, corn ethanol production makes climate change worse. The EPA’s data shows that most corn ethanol production actually causes more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

Congress and the Obama administration can take action to reform the corn ethanol mandate

In the short term, the EPA needs to reduce the volumes of corn ethanol mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard to ease the environmental and economic harm caused by corn ethanol production. Today, 156 U.S. House Representatives sent a letter to the EPA requesting a reduction of the RFS. In the longer term, Congress needs to seriously reform the RFS and reexamine all federal support for polluting biofuels that threaten the environment, food security and public health.

Resources to help you address the impacts of corn ethanol policies in your coverage of the drought

Experts:
  • Timothy Searchinger, researcher and lecturer at Princeton University and an expert on the intersection of biofuels and the environment. Searchinger authored the seminal paper on the indirect land use changes associated with biofuel production in the U.S. Contact him by email at tsearchi@princeton.edu or by phone at 202-465-2074.
  • Colin Carter, professor and director of the Giannini Foundation for Agricultural Economics at UC Davis and an expert on agricultural commodity markets and trade. Contact him by email at colin@primal.ucdavis.edu or by phone at 530-304-7603.
Relevant studies:
News, editorial and opinion pieces that address corn ethanol and drought linkages:
Friends of the Earth resources:

Contact: For more information, contact Michal Rosenoer, biofuels policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, by email at mrosenoer@foe.org or by phone at 202-222-0734.

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