Guest Commentary: Corn is for food, not fuel

Guest Commentary: Corn is for food, not fuel


How can we create jobs, improve the environment, reduce the government deficit, and improve relations with Mexico and our Central American allies? It sounds impossible, but actually it's simple: stop mandating that corn-based ethanol be added to gasoline.

The mandate to add ethanol made from corn to gasoline was originally promoted to further energy independence and reduce greenhouse gases. It does neither, however, and it has never made any sense. Now its shortcomings are becoming even more apparent.

This ineffective policy comes at a great cost. In addition to the actual cost of the subsidy to farmers for increased corn production, we are most likely leaving the environment worse off. To meet the ethanol mandate, there is energy-intensive cultivation of corn, often on newly-planted marginal land. The transport of ethanol, which must be by truck, is also energy intensive. Together, the production and transport of ethanol offset all or almost all of any energy savings from substituting ethanol for oil in gasoline. Furthermore, because ethanol contains less energy than oil, using it in gasoline does not lower emissions, as more fuel must be combusted.

At the same time, fracking technology and the growth of solar and wind power have enabled us to export both crude oil and refined products in ever-increasing volumes, so the objective of using ethanol to achieve energy independence is much less important.

The additional land put into corn production has often come at the expense of wildlife habitat. The National Wildlife Federation recently issued a report showing that "the corn ethanol mandate is responsible for the destruction of millions of acres of wildlife habitat and degradation of water quality."

If corn were used for food instead of for ethanol, two beneficial things would happen. First, we would create more high-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry as demand increased and output was expanded. On balance, this would come without additional environmental harm or increased emissions.

Second, corn prices would fall. This would lower our domestic food prices, especially for meat and dairy products. At the same time, Mexico and our Central American allies are distressed over the increase in the price of corn which has almost doubled since the ethanol mandate began. We export corn to Mexico and other countries, and it is an important food source, especially for lower-income people. As we go back to exporting more corn with an end to the ethanol mandate, our allies will be grateful as corn prices decline.

It is clear, then, that ending the ethanol mandate would create jobs in the oil and gas industry, improve the environment, reduce the federal deficit, and lower corn prices, improving our relations with Mexico and Central American countries. Why not? It should be obvious to members of Congress that they need to act.

Stanford L. Levin is an emeritus professor of economics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He has served as a commissioner on the Illinois Commerce Commission and consults on energy issues in the U. S. and abroad.