Corn, chickens and capitalism

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The economic driving force of production in capitalist society is profits. This usually leads to multiple contradictions between conflicting forces of capital.

Take the current energy crisis.

It has at least two related origins. First is the dramatic increase in global warming, which threatens to radically change life on the planet. The second is the rapid depletion of stores of fossil fuel, whose combustion is mainly responsible for global warming.

U.S. capitalism has reacted to both challenges.

It responded to the latter challenge with the tragic war in Iraq and the establishment of permanent military bases to control the dwindling sources of petroleum.

It is responding to both challenges by diverting food supplies like corn and sugarcane to “feed” the world’s 800 million vehicles. This diversion includes destruction of forests, wetlands and rainforests to plant more crops for fuel. This in turn adds to global warming by eliminating trees, which act as “sinks” by absorbing carbon dioxide.

Brazil is the world’s leader in ethanol-for-energy with hundreds of miles of sugarcane plantations, much of them created by destroying vast areas of the Amazon rainforest.

The U.S. relies on corn. Corn only yields 354 gallons of ethanol per acre, compared to 662 gallons per acre for sugarcane. In 2006, 17 percent of the U.S. corn crop was converted to ethanol to provide only 3 percent of our fuel needs. To protect U.S. corn agribusiness, refiners in the U.S. get a 51-cent credit for every gallon of ethanol blended into gasoline, while a 54-cent tariff is levied on Brazilian ethanol.

In political maneuvering, Democratic Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Joe Biden (Del.) joined Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, another Democrat, to sponsor legislation requiring the production of 30 billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel per year by 2020 and 60 billion by 2030.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush upped the ante to 35 billion gallons by 2017, optimistically predicting it will supply 15 percent of our fuel needs by then. The Senate passed an energy bill that boosts that to 36 billion — six times the current level.

However, it is not all clear sailing for the ethanol industry. The prices of both corn and sugar have doubled since the recent ethanol boom.

Corn is a major ingredient in processed foods and is the main livestock feed. The Agriculture Department recently reported that corn for ethanol is driving up the cost of animal feed. Meat prices are expected to rise dramatically.

The USDA projects that 90.5 million acres of corn have been planted this year, 15 percent more than 2006. This surge drives up prices of other crops such as soybeans and cotton by decreasing their acreage planted, not to mention destroying forests and wetlands.

The usually united farm lobby is not so united now. With the threat of increased costs, the beef, chicken, poultry and pork industries formed the Coalition for Balanced Food and Fuel. Groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association blame the ethanol industry for raising the price of corn.

Also, a coalition of 12 environmental groups lobbied Congress, saying that our lands and forests are endangered. They won a committee’s approval for an amendment that prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency from relaxing air quality standards for ethanol plants.

The House is drafting its version of an energy bill. The ethanol industry doesn’t expect strong support from the House and is relying on a Senate and House conference later this year.

The diversion of food crops to provide increasing demands for fuel will have dire consequences, especially for the billions of people who live in chronic hunger and for the ecology of the planet. The only winners will be the multinational agrichemical corporations.

Lost in the scramble for profits is a realistic analysis of possible solutions. The 5 percent or so gain in fuel supplies using ethanol could be met many times over by raising auto fuel efficiency by an easily obtainable 20 percent, or by a major investment in public transportation and bicycle paths, or by challenging the “throw-away” economy with a massive recycling industry, or by rejuvenating our urban centers while limiting the destructive suburban sprawl, or by major investments in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

These alternatives are not included in the agenda of the ethanol or oil industries, which have enormous resources to direct public perceptions and influence government. Real solutions will only occur by programs of education and political action by the peoples of the world.

David Kennell (kennell @borcim.wustl.edu) is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine.