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Friday, February 25, 2011

Thank you, Mr. President

The retired POTUS on Thursday voiced his own concerns about the effect corn-based ethanol is having on food prices and political stability in the developing world. As the AP reported:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton on Thursday warned farmers that using too much corn for ethanol fuel could lead to higher food prices and riots in poor countries.

He said the United States needs to look at the long term, global effects of its farm policy.

“I think the best thing to say is we have to become energy independent, but we don't want to do it at the cost of food riots,” Clinton said.
In doing so, he was somewhat less decisive than his vice president, Al Gore. (Perhaps Bill’s wife still expects to run for president in Iowa some day.) Still, this is moderating his position clearly in support of ethanol three years ago, as expressed in his book, Giving.

Despite this equivocation, corn ethanol’s most adamant opponent, the Wall Street Journal, offered rare praise for the former president:
America's political addiction to ethanol has consequences, from raising the price of food to lining the pockets of companies like Archer Daniels Midland. So we're delighted to see another prominent booster—Bill Clinton—see the fright.
Actually, the effect of American ethanol consumption on overseas food riots was noted last month by critics on both the left and right, tied to UN statistics showing skyrocketing food prices to record highs over the past six months. The pressure and evidence have been building ever since.

A Princeton researcher, Tim Searchinger, published a thoughtful commentary in the Washington Post two weeks ago, which was followed up by articles in Time and a scathing editorial in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Burning Dinner.” The rebuttal to Searchinger (a former EDF activist) was to call him a “Gasoline Whore.”

While the unrest in the Middle East is new, the opposition to shifting food for use in fuel is not, as 2007 articles in Business Week and Technology Review make clear.

What’s changed in the last four years has been an increasingly wide range of biofuels that can provide a greater quantity of fuel without this impact on food prices. (Some of these alternatives would be very good for California.) Overseas food riots have raised the urgency enough to spark interest in ethanol alternatives across a wide political spectrum.

Given this elevated level of discourse, the time has come for Energy Secretary Steven Chu to re-emphasize that corn-based biofuels are only “a transitional crop” and for the budget-cutting Congress to start the phaseout of subsidies for them. The country has less than a year to forge a new national consensus before the 2012 presidential election prompts a new round of farm state pandering.

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