Weighed against the hunger they help create, billions for biofuel become counterproductive

If anything should come to symbolize the revolutions now sweeping away or threatening Arab dictatorships, it might well be a simple grocer’s scale.

It was, as we have since learned, the confiscation of such a scale from a 26-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, that proved to be the triggering event that brought about the overthrow of Tunisia’s corrupt ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. That, and a slap given to him by a female government employee when he attempted to retrieve it from her, was what caused the desperate and humiliated Bouaziz to douse himself with gasoline and light a match –quite literally igniting the firestorm that has since swept across North Africa and spread to other parts of the Middle East.

That the seizure of a scale should have been so instrumental in the deposing of despots seems oddly appropriate, however, since a scale is used to symbolize justice, which has been notably lacking in the regimes at issue.

On yet another level, however, we should remember that the purpose of a scale is to weigh commodities in order to determine their price. And right now, the diversion of massive amounts of cropland for a purpose other than the growing of food is something that needs to be carefully weighed to determine its actual cost in contributing to world hunger and resulting instability.

I’m referring to the growing of corn for the purpose of producing ethanol under a U.S. government subsidy program that’s currently up for renewal.

Ethanol production, of course, isn’t the only thing that’s responsible for a dramatic rise in both food prices and famine, which are largely the result of abnormal weather conditions that have lately plagued various countries, including severe flooding from torrential rains in locales as far apart as Australia and Canada, and crippling droughts in places like Russia. and Argentina. Such factors helped push up the price of wheat by 74 percent last year and the price of corn up 87 percent. The resulting spike in the cost of food has driven what the World Bank estimates to be an additional 44 million residents of developing countries into dire poverty since last June, and threatens tens of millions more.

But at a time when so many other factors are conspiring to create food shortages, layering on the large-scale cultivation of biofuel can’t help but worsen an already critical situation. With an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop now being converted into ethanol, the price of corn has reportedly tripled with in a few years. (And that’s not to mention the program’s environmental impact, from increased pesticide use to fertilizer runoff that’s adding to the depletion of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico to helping accelerate climate change that scientists believe is the main culprit in all this bizarre weather. Two years ago. in fact, South American rainforests were being sacrificed to the cultivation of corn for U.S. ethanol.) Even Al Gore, an early champion of the corn-based ethanol program, recently acknowledged that the support he gave it while vice president was a mistake.

Weather, of course, is always going to impact our food prices to some degree, and short of a massive campaign to curtail greenhouse gases, is something largely beyond our control. But we can control how we manage our resources – and it’s becoming ever more apparent that the ethanol subsidy program, which cost approximately $7.7 billion last year, while well-intentioned, has become counterproductive, both to the U.S. economy and to interests of the world’s poor. In fact, why not take those billions we now spend on biofuel and invest them in real innovative energy solutions, such as the conversion of municipal solid waste into a fuel source? Just think about that for a moment: how much we could save in both energy costs and land use by converting the approximately 4.5 pounds of trash every one of us throws away each day into fuel and reclaiming all that cropland for actual food cultivation (hopefully, using more environmentally-friendly methods).

For as inspiring as revolutions are when they involve the overthrow of tyrannical and despotic leaders, their outcome is far from certain as long as the basic problem of hunger remains unresolved.