Everything Else is Driving up Food Prices

Waving the red flag of revolution over the role of ethanol in food prices with skimpy evidence is like falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater and the Wall Street Journal ought to know better.

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By JIM LANE, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

In New York, the Wall Street Journal launched a bitter counterattack this week on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, after Gingrich remarked, at a meeting of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, that “Obviously big urban newspapers want to kill [ethanol policies] because it’s working, and you wonder, ‘What are their values?’” and described the Journal’s editorial-page anti-ethanol stance as “just plain flat intellectually wrong.”

The Journal responds: “Given that Mr. Gingrich aspires to be President, his ethanol lobbying raises larger questions about his convictions and judgment … even Al Gore now admits that the only reason he supported ethanol in 2000 was to goose his presidential prospects, and the only difference now between Al and Newt is that Al admits he was wrong.”

Amber Waves of Ethanol

The offending article in question was the Journal’s “Amber Waves of Ethanol,” in which the Journal tied rising food prices to U.S. ethanol policy, and stated in support of its contention that ethanol “achieves none of its alleged policy goals” and that “Cornell University scientist David Pimentel calculates that if the entire U.S. corn crop were devoted to ethanol production, it would satisfy only 4 percent of U.S. oil consumption.”

Let’s look at the Journal’s reported claim.

Ethanol & the U.S. Gasoline Supply

POET and companies, such as Pursuit Dynamics, are reporting yields of roughly 2.9 gallons per bushel — well, Pursuit is reporting yields of up to 3.0 gallons per bushel, but let’s use 2.9 as a benchmark. The total corn harvest in 2010 was 12.45 billion bushels — it was a down year for corn, but let’s use it.

Using the Journal’s cited formula, if the entire corn crop had been devoted to ethanol, that would have resulted in 36.3 billion gallons of production and could have displaced right around 25 billion gallons of gasoline (even if burned in a gasoline-optimized internal combustion engine — in Ricardo engines, it could have displaced as much as 36 billion).

By the Journal’s cited calculation, if the devotion of the corn crop to ethanol had only displaced 4 percent of U.S. oil consumption, that would have indicated that the U.S. was using 625 billion gallons of oil.

Is the Journal right?

Let’s have the envelope please …

U.S. total oil consumption is 18.69 million barrels per day or 286.5 billion gallons per year.

That’s a miss by 338 billion gallons. That’s 166,996 gallons off, per paying subscriber of the Wall Street Journal, or more crude oil than the average consumer would use in a lifetime.

That’s not spot on, or in the ballpark, or close enough for government work, or good enough for horseshoes. It’s bologna. The debate over food policy — which is an important one and needs to be had — deserves better.

Now, I have no beef with the Murdoch media empire. I began my career in media in the humble job of delivering Murdoch newspapers like the Sydney Daily Telegraph and The Australian, and have many fond memories of nights at The Racing Club in New York City enjoying a beer (or two) with more producers, hosts and reporters from the Murdoch news organization than I can count. I like to think I helped to save the career of one tough Fox newsman by persuading him, at around 2 o’clock in the morning, not to ship a dead rabbit to his executive producer after a falling out over story selections.

But I mean, come on.

Real Numbers, Real Talk, Real Issues, Real People, Real Concerns

Aside from goofing the ethanol replacement numbers by a margin so wide you could fit the spectrum from Sarah Palin’s to Ralph Nader’s politics in the gap and still have enough room for all the cynicism at the American Petroleum Institute — the whole premise of the comparison is completely off the mark and designed to inflame.

The goal of corn ethanol policy is hardly to replace the entire U.S. oil supply, but simply to dramatically reduce the dependence on foreign oil imports for gasoline. Given that U.S. gasoline consumption is 130 billion gallons and we import about 70 percent of that, the true replacement target is around 91 billion gallons and everyone knows it.

Nor is anyone in their right mind — except perhaps a wistful maize farmer in the fields of South Africa — thinking of selling the entire corn crop for ethanol. Advanced biofuels, which even the Chicken Council (is that really the best name they could come up with?) “strongly supports,” will be using ABC — anything but corn.

If You Are What You Eat, You’re a Barrel of Oil

But let’s look at more important statistics and facts.

At the Digest, in our four years before the mast, we have been at pains to draw the distinction between crops and food. Food is what you actually eat — crops are a part of that, but a shockingly small part — one dimension within the equally intractable problems of processing and transportation.

An example. In 1974, when I was a boy in short pants applying for my first job as a newspaper carrier of the aforementioned Murdoch (and Fairfax) papers, the price of an 18-ounce box of corn flakes was 43 cents, and there was 3.8 cents of corn in it.

Today, I read that K-Mart is offering corn flakes at $3.99 for 18 ounces, and there is nine cents of corn in it.

Let’s do the math.

That’s a 136 percent run up in the price of corn and 895 percent in everything else.

The Everything Else that’s been Driving Food Prices

It’s the everything else that is driving up food prices: marketing, transportation, processing, and so on and so on.

It is not the hour of history for reckless disregard for the truth. It is a time for reasonable discourse over the domestic future of our fuel platform. Waving the red flag of revolution over the role of ethanol in food prices, with this kind of skimpy evidence, is falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and the Journal ought to know better.

I have known many Murdoch writers, but never a stupid one. So my best guess is that the editorial page team didn’t write this because they are stupid, but because they think you are.

Copyright 2011; Biofuels Digest; All rights reserved