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Published May 16, 2009, 12:00 AM

Pro/con: Ending ethanol subsidies will slash food prices

In 2005, a coalition of Midwestern corn growers, giant agribusinesses, environmental groups and politicians anxious to assuage public concern over dependence on foreign oil joined together to mandate the addition of ever increasing amounts of ethanol to our gasoline. This was never a good idea, but we now know it is even worse than we imagined as we’ve learned more about its impact on our environment, our transportation infrastructure and our economy.

By: Andrew P. Morriss, McClatchy Tribune Information Services

In 2005, a coalition of Midwestern corn growers, giant agribusinesses, environmental groups and politicians anxious to assuage public concern over dependence on foreign oil joined together to mandate the addition of ever increasing amounts of ethanol to our gasoline.

This was never a good idea, but we now know it is even worse than we imagined as we’ve learned more about its impact on our environment, our transportation infrastructure and our economy.

Ethanol’s environmental impact is terrible — the very opposite of what politicians promised in 2005.

Because most ethanol in the United States comes from corn, the mandate has led to land being taken out of conservation reserves to plant more corn, more intensive cultivation practices with dreadful environmental consequences, and increasing demands on fragile ground water resources.

And all of that has produced surprisingly little net energy gain — only in a good year does corn-based ethanol contain more energy than went into growing and harvesting the corn, transporting it to the ethanol plant, and then moving the ethanol to market. Even some environmental groups have begun to criticize the mandate for its environmental impacts. A representative for Friends of the Earth recently attacked biofuels mandates for increasing global warming while failing to reduce our foreign oil dependence.

Moreover, ethanol is a bad transportation fuel. Consider a few of its drawbacks:

* It has a lower-energy content than gasoline, meaning your car gets fewer miles per gallon the more ethanol is in your tank.

* It attracts water, requiring expensive separate tanks and pipelines to transport it from the refinery to the gas station.

* It is more corrosive than gasoline, causing problems for everyone from car owners to gas station owners. The respected Underwriters Lab, for example, reported that E85, a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, was corroding parts in gas station pumps; pipeline owners worry that ethanol causes cracks in pipelines, creating potential for environmentally damaging spills.

Worst of all, rising corn-based ethanol production in response to the mandates drove up corn prices in the United States and around the world, raising food costs for the average American family by $130 a year.

The impact in poorer countries like Mexico has been far worse, as noted by the anti-poverty group Oxfam, which has been at the forefront of criticism over ethanol mandates’ effect on food prices. Putting poor people’s food in your gas tank simply doesn’t make moral or economic sense — yet that is precisely what corn-based ethanol does.

If it doesn’t help the environment, is a bad fuel, and raises food costs, why doesn’t Congress repeal the mandate right away? The answer is simple: Virtually every senator and congressman imagines himself or herself president one day and the road to the White House starts at the Iowa caucuses, where a pledge to support corn-based ethanol ranks with favoring motherhood and apple pie. A destructive policy that benefits only politicians, harms the world’s poor, and just plain doesn’t work is one we don’t need.

Andrew P. Morriss is the H. Ross & Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business and professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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