I recently read an excellent article in the May/June 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council on Foreign Relations. Professors C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer argue in "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor" that the push for corn-based ethanol is driving up global food prices.
High oil prices have prompted governments to subsidize the development of alternative fuels. Brazil uses sugar to produce ethanol. The U.S. has focused on corn-based ethanol. Although corn production is near record levels, an increasing portion is being dedicated to refine ethanol. This has depleted corn inventories. Furthermore, as farmers plant more and more corn, yields of other food crops are falling, pushing up their prices as well.
Ethanol is expensive to produce. Ironically, high crude oil prices are necessary for ethanol production to be profitable. The authors argue that if oil prices fell back to $30 per barrel (admittedly, not a very likely outcome), corn prices would have to fall to less than $2 per bushel for ethanol production to remain a profitable business. However, at $80 per barrel for oil, ethanol refiners could afford to pay more than $5 per bushel for corn and still make a good return. The tradeoff, of course, is more expensive food.
I commented on much of this back in April when I wrote Ethanol is Not the Solution. I argued that the most promising technology to address our transportation needs in the short term is the plug-in hybrid car. Since then several automobile manufacturers have announced plans to invest more money to research and develop this technology. The farm lobby may oppose these efforts, but success would not only significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil, it would also bring food inflation under control.