Thursday, April 17, 2008

Food crisis, biofuel, and Barack Obama

Across the developing world -- from Haiti to the Philippines to Egypt -- food shortages are at hand. There have been protests and riots. North Korea may face famine. Meanwhile, in the USA conventional wisdom holds that a candidate with personal connection to countries in the developing world -- Kenya and Indonesia -- is poised to win the Democratic Party nomination for the US presidency. It comes as no small irony that this presidential hopeful actually bears some personal responsibility for the food crisis which threatens countries of the developing world.

The US has long been the "breadbasket of the world." Whenever there was a crop failure in the old Soviet Union, or Indian or Africans faced famine, the US farmer was there. But today, a significant portion of America's farmland -- some of the most fertile soil on earth -- is devoted to growing corn for energy purposes. Moreover, the corn-based ethanol US farms produce is non-economical. The US government (read: the American taxpayer) subsidizes giant corporations to plant corn for ethanol. The system is ridiculously inefficient, but the agriculture lobby has bought some powerful friends in the US Congress.

Today no political ally of the US ethanol industry is more prominent -- according to a Harper's magazine article by Ken Silverstein -- than one 2008 presidential hopeful. Silverstein describes attending a speech back in 2006 given by Barack Obama to one thousand progressive activists. It was a speech full of the now familiar rhetorical flourishes. Yet as Silverstein noted, it was empty of substance but for one issue: "Obama had essentially marshaled his twenty minutes of undeniably moving oratory to plump for the classic pork-barrel cause of every Midwestern politician." Obama's sacred "cause" was biofuel. Silverstein writes:

. . . indeed Obama has delivered for his constituents—for social activists, but also for business groups whose demands are invariably more costly. . . . (E)thanol . . . survives only because members of Congress from farm states, whether liberal or conservative, have for decades managed to win billions of dollars in federal subsidies to underwrite its production. It is not, of course, family farmers who primarily benefit from the program but rather the agribusiness giants such as Illinois-based Aventine Renewable Energy and Archer Daniels Midland (for which ethanol accounts for just 5 percent of its sales but an estimated 23 percent of its profits). Ethanol production, as Tad Patzek of UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering wrote in a report this year, is based on “the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the U.S. taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel.”

Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Obama has been as assiduous as any member of Congress in promoting ethanol.
As the specter of hunger and political instability stalks the developing world, Barack Obama and the other presidential candidates should be forced to state categorically whether or not they stand behind continued subsidies to the US corn ethanol industry.

Because when families across the developing world face hunger due to high food prices, US ethanol policy is no mere taxpayer scam. From the perspective of the world's poorest people, for the US to pay its farmers to feed automobiles instead of people is simply unconscionable.

I would urge everyone to read Time Magazine's outstanding article: The clean Energy Scam.
Check out Obama's Energy Policy at

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