Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 28, 2010

US Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars ...

... while Hunger is on the Rise (January 21 2010)

Note: As this article reports, the US now feeds more than a quarter of its total grain crop to its automobiles. That's enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. This is important since the US supplies about half of all the world's grain exports {1}. And its particularly important to Japan, because we import more than seventy percent of the grain we consume {2}, which is not surprising for a nation that has more than ten million golfers but only 300,000 farmers. Moreover, world grain production is not keeping up with demand for food {3} causing prices to triple over the past three years {4}. When grain becomes even more scarce, will the US choose to feed us or its own automobiles? Will we Japanese citizens and our government wake up before we starve to death. -- Bill Totten

US Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars ...

... while Hunger is on the Rise (January 21 2010)

The 107 million tons of grain that went to US ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total US grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004.

Graph on US Grain Used for Ethanol, 1980-2009:

The United States looms large in the world food economy: it is far and away the world's leading grain exporter, exporting more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined. In a globalized food economy, increased demand for food to fuel American vehicles puts additional pressure on world food supplies.

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive hunger for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The Earth Policy Institute has noted that even if the entire US grain crop were converted to ethanol (leaving no domestic crop to make bread, rice, pasta, or feed the animals from which we get meat, milk, and eggs), it would satisfy at most eighteen percent of US automotive fuel needs.

When the growing demand for corn for ethanol helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008, people in low-income grain-importing countries were hit the hardest. The unprecedented spike in food prices drove up the number of hungry people in the world to over one billion for the first time in 2009. Though the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has recently brought food prices down from their peak, they still remain well above their long-term average levels.

Graph on Number of Undernourished People in the World, 1969-2009:

The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once can feed one person for an entire year. The average income of the owners of the world's 940 million automobiles is at least ten times larger than that of the world's two billion hungriest people. In the competition between cars and hungry people for the world's harvest, the car is destined to win.

Graph on Number of People who Could be Fed by the US Grain used to Produce Ethanol, 1980-2009:

Continuing to divert more food to fuel, as is now mandated by the US federal government in its Renewable Fuel Standard, will likely only reinforce the disturbing rise in hunger. By subsidizing the production of ethanol, now to the tune of some $6 billion each year, US taxpayers are in effect subsidizing rising food bills at home and around the world.

For more information on the competition between cars and people for grain, see Chapter 2 in Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W W Norton & Company, 2009), on-line for free downloading with supporting datasets.

Media Contact:
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tel: 202.496.9290 extension 12

Research Contact:
Janet Larsen
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{1} "Growing Food Insecurity: Food-to-Fuel and Other Challenges" by Janet Larsen, Director of Research, Earth Policy Institute (May 2008), Chart 5

{2} Ibid, Chart 8

{3} Grain Production Continues Growth After Mixed Decade

{4} Lester Brown, "Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization", Earth Policy Institute (September 29 2009)

Bill Totten


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