Skip to main content

Paying more for food? Blame the ethanol mandate

By Kay McDonald, Special to CNN
August 20, 2012 -- Updated 2148 GMT (0548 HKT)
The drought had a negative impact on corn in Le Roy, Illinois. Drought occurred in six Plains states between last May and August because moist Gulf of Mexico air "failed to stream northward in late spring," and summer storms were few and stingy with rainfall, said a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The drought had a negative impact on corn in Le Roy, Illinois. Drought occurred in six Plains states between last May and August because moist Gulf of Mexico air "failed to stream northward in late spring," and summer storms were few and stingy with rainfall, said a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
HIDE CAPTION
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
Extreme heat, drought ravage Midwest
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kay McDonald: Expect the price of meat, eggs and dairy products to go up
  • McDonald: America's policy of diverting corn to ethanol production is causing high prices
  • She says if we must have an ethanol mandate, then we should cut the level by half
  • McDonald: Better still, scrap the national ethanol mandate and let each state decide

Editor's note: Kay McDonald is the editor of Big Picture Agriculture.

(CNN) -- Because of the severe heat and drought in the Midwest, global food prices are going up. Why? Because the U.S. is the leading producer and exporter of staple grains. We are for food production what Saudi Arabia is for oil production. Our crop shortages have ripple effects throughout the food system and disrupt the global markets, especially in the food-insecure nations.

The U.S. hasn't reached 2008's level of high food prices yet because rice and wheat stocks are ample. These are the two most important food grains for human consumption worldwide.

Corn and soybean levels are extremely tight, and their prices have skyrocketed since June. However, these two grains are mostly used as livestock feeds. Corn is also diverted to produce ethanol because of our government mandate.

Opinion: Extreme heat and droughts -- a recipe for world food woes

Kay McDonald
Kay McDonald

Earlier this month, the United Nations urged the U.S. to ease its ethanol mandate. The origin of this policy goes back to 2005 when Congress set requirements of corn to be used for automotive fuel. In 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act greatly increased those requirements to improve air quality and become more energy secure. Behind the scenes, however, corn and other agricultural lobbyists were promoting the mandate to create a larger market for corn. Using current numbers, this year's ethanol mandate would theoretically require 44% of this year's corn crop, a third of which is recycled back as distillers grains for livestock feed.

We are being told by the ethanol producers, the corn growers and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that eliminating the ethanol mandate would not significantly reduce global food costs. But how could that be when roughly 14% of the world's corn crop is being converted into ethanol in the U.S.? In addition to corn being used for biofuel, taxpayer-subsidized biodiesel is using up more soybeans each year.

While some say that attempting to change the ethanol mandate is politically impossible in an election year that depends so much on the Midwest swing states, there is a loud and growing chorus of voices that are calling for an urgent end to the mandate. Greg Page, CEO of Cargill, one of the world's largest agricultural corporations, recently urged: "We need to move to more market-driven biofuels policies, not inflexible mandates, subsidies and tariffs."

Just as the USDA's recent estimate of a corn yield at 123 bushels per acre is certain to be reduced further, its estimate of food costs rising only 3% to 4% next year is certain to be raised.

The least politically palatable condition in any nation is high food prices. Expect beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, fats and oils, cereals and dairy products to go up the most in the coming months. Americans have already reduced their meat consumption over the past few years partly because of higher prices.

It is time for policymakers to admit they made a mistake in setting the corn ethanol mandate level too high in 2007. This year, the mandate is 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol, which would require 4.7 billion bushels of corn. The mandate is set to top out in 2015 at 15 billion gallons.

If politics dictates that we must have an ethanol mandate, then at the very least we should consider cutting the level by half, which could be done by using only 5% ethanol, or E5, in gasoline instead of E10, which is a combination of 10% ethanol and 90% unleaded gasoline.

The mandate should never be allowed to use more than 20% of the annual U.S. corn crop. This amount would be enough to help stimulate corn demand for this overproduced commodity. As a bonus, more sustainable farming practices could return to the Midwest following this frenzy of growing corn on corn, fencerow to fencerow, to cash in on the high prices.

What would make the most sense would be to scrap the national ethanol mandate altogether and let each state decide.

Currently, ethanol use is not mandated in top corn producing states such as Iowa and Nebraska. These states choose to sell gasoline that doesn't even contain ethanol. This would suggest that they would rather export the product than use it themselves. Since they tout their ethanol product so highly, and it is available to them locally, they should consider increasing their own use of the product.

Meanwhile, consumers in low corn producing states such as Colorado and California are required to buy ethanol in every gallon of gasoline because ethanol use is mandated in those states.

The argument for the ethanol mandate is being challenged because of today's greater use of natural gas and the development of other fuel sources. It's time for the mandate to reflect the realities of 2012.

It often takes a crisis to get government to take action and correct a policy that was wrong to begin with. This growing season, we have had extreme heat and drought in the most productive farming region in the world. Let's use this unfortunate plight to get our ethanol policy right, before it causes food prices to go up more.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kay McDonald.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT