Here in the Corn Belt, times are good for farmers. But the world is absent-minded. Every once in a while, it forgets to feed many of its people -- at least at a price they can afford. Usually this is a systemic crisis in which pockets of plenty coexist with pockets of deprivation. The system breaks down, and food doesn't get to the people who need it at a price they can pay. This happened in the Great Depression, when crops were burned in an effort to curb surpluses that were depressing prices -- at the very time that there were people going hungry.
This was long seen as a regrettable failure of a broken system. It was fixed through a combination of ag subsidies and surplus programs. Since the Great Depression, we have not needed to resort to burning crops. Until now. But it's less dramatic today. It happens every time people gas up with biofuels, especially the widespread gasoline/ethanol mixture. Mountains of corn are being burned in the engines of the nation's cars -- while elsewhere people are overburdened by high food prices or forced to do without.
Ethanol production is not the only cause of the world's food crisis. But it adds to the strains of an already overburdened system. Fields are converted to corm production, creating shortages that drive up other grain prices, and with today's high oil prices, ethanol producers can easily bid up the price of corn. The result is a snapshot of a system in crisis. Leo Lewis wrote about this recently in the Times Online.
When it comes to the food crisis, it is not difficult to cast biofuels as the villain of the piece: biofuels are new, the food crisis is new and the two seem connected intimately.Looking back at the old, faded Depression-era photographs of crops being burned, we can't help but wonder, what was wrong with those people? Today's automotive crop combustion is less dramatic, but something is still wrong with the picture.
Even villains can serve a purpose. In this case, biofuels have been a barium meal for the globalised economy, exposing the astonishing fragility of food and energy supply so that the correct treatment can be applied.
By giving food a starring role in the energy debate, biofuels have revealed the lengths to which we will go to drive our cars cheaply. If food riots are the grim outcome of that new role, biofuels have rung an important alarm over the sustainability of the internal combustion engine.