DuBois: The miracle of ethanol and why you shouldn't buy it

Last week, The Lamron's front-page story addressed the rising price of beer and food, and alluded to some potential causes for the trend: notably the effect of weather on hops and barley crops, the declining American dollar and the increased price of glass and aluminum.

By the time of the story's appearance, however, some Geneseo students had already noticed the phenomenon and felt its effects on their wallets. One of my friends, for instance, opts not to buy fresh produce due to the exorbitant prices, and now subsists mainly on fifty-cent burritos. Even worse, as the news article points out, students are being forced to lower their standards in beer - a grave prospect considering many rely exclusively on Keystone to begin with.

­No one can argue with the fact that the price of food is rising. What does deserve a closer look, however, is why. There is evidence to suggest that the price surge cannot merely be linked to any one factor, but rather a grim mélange of compound problems, and that it is likely to get worse before it gets better.

The crux of the problem, however, is simple: Every facet of our economy, from agriculture to transportation, requires energy, and it's becoming increasingly scarce. According to the Peak Oil model, a hitherto accurate projection developed by Dr. Marion King Hubbert in 1956, 2005 was the year of global peak oil.? Based on this estimate, the world's crude oil supply is now over 50 percent depleted.

Fortunately, because the production follows a bell curve, supplies will not immediately run out. However, even a slight drop in oil production will have a serious impact?on our increasingly energy-intensive economy. As supply dwindles, our demand for energy shows no sign of flagging.

To counteract this obvious problem, the administration has passed measures mandating the increased use of biofuels, most notably ethanol from corn. By switching to gasoline with a 10 percent ethanol blend, policymakers hope to curb both our oil expenses and reduce greenhouse emissions, seemingly killing two birds with one stone.

There are some fundamental flaws with ethanol, however: most obviously, the impact the reallocation of corn crops from food to energy production is having on food prices. According to The Economist, in 2007 over two-thirds of the United States' corn harvest was used for biofuels. Government subsidies, amounting to over $7 billion in taxpayer dollars per year (about $1.90 to the gallon of ethanol), provide farmers with more incentive than ever to produce corn over other necessary crops.

Furthermore, the government is paying farmers simply to not develop over 35 million acres of land in order to pad the price of corn.

All of this adds up to a completely unsustainable practice, one that lines big farmers' pockets and assuages our eco-conscience, but in the end does us more harm than good. The Economist calculates that to fill one SUV gas tank with ethanol one time requires enough corn to feed one person for an entire year. Every acre of land that is devoted to biofuel production is one less devoted to feeding the world's already starving people. Indeed, those who will be hit hardest by increased food prices are lower income people whose food expenses already comprise a significant portion of their income.

The facts speak for themselves. While ethanol may seem like the future of energy production, it is in fact a costly dead end and yet another example of our administration's unwillingness to address the elephant in the living room and commit fully to real, if difficult change.

Matt Dubois is a senior English major who really enjoys corn, when he can afford it.