How corn lifts all prices

We’ve been talking about the price of wheat. Here is what is going on with corn and how the ethanol-fueled prices are affecting nearly every other kind of food:

People who use corn to feed cattle, hogs and chickens are being squeezed by high corn prices. On Monday, Tyson Foods reported its first loss in six quarters and said that its corn and soybean costs would increase by $600 million this year. Those who are able, such as egg producers, are passing those high corn costs along to consumers. The wholesale price of eggs in the first quarter soared 40 percent from a year earlier, according to the Agriculture Department. Meanwhile, retail prices of countless food items, from cereal to sodas to salad dressing, are being nudged upward by more expensive ingredients such as corn syrup and cornstarch.

Rising food prices have given Congress and the White House a sudden case of legislative indigestion. In 2005, the Republican-led Congress and President Bush backed a bill that required widespread ethanol use in motor fuels. Just four months ago, the Democratic-led Congress passed and Bush signed energy legislation that boosted the mandate for minimum corn-based ethanol use to 15 billion gallons, about 10 percent of motor fuel, by 2015. It was one of the most popular parts of the bill, appealing to farm-state lawmakers and to those worried about energy security and eager to substitute a home-grown energy source for a portion of U.S. petroleum imports. To help things along, motor-fuel blenders receive a 51 cent subsidy for every gallon of corn-based ethanol used through the end of 2010; this year, production could reach 8 billion gallons. . . .

Although ethanol was once promoted as a way to slow climate change [so says the Post, tODD!], a study published in Science magazine Feb. 29 concluded that greenhouse-gas emissions from corn and even cellulosic ethanol “exceed or match those from fossil fuels and therefore produce no greenhouse benefits.”

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Dr. Veith, your claims have always been that it was environmentalists who supported corn-derived ethanol. Not only does this Post article fail to cite any particular group (I’ve asked for some sort of reference several times, but have yet to hear one), but it doesn’t even say it was environmentalists that “promoted [ethanol] as a way to slow climate change”!

    Now, you may make the assumption that “Who else but environmentalists would promote ethanol in such a way?” My answer would be, in part: the same people who are promoting ethanol as cited in your article. That is, politicians. “Look, we did something about the environment! Vote for us!”

    Want proof? My Googling turned up this quote from yesterday (two months after the Science article cited above!)

    “Florida’s businesses continue to demonstrate that there is gold in green, and climate-friendly energy sources — like ethanol and solar energy — are bringing new prospects for our state,” said [Republican Florida] Governor Charlie Crist.

    He’s actually been pushing ethanol since 2007. Of course, you can find quotes from before this year — by Democrats and Republicans — promoting ethanol in the context of dealing with climate change. But environmentalists? Again, there are probably some, but no one’s pointed to any yet.

    “Farm-state lawmakers” have consistently supported ethanol, and I would guess for reasons that often have little to do with climate change. But I don’t doubt they promoted it in part as a solution for climate change. It plays better with the population at large than just saying, “It’s a pork earmark, whaddya gonna do?”

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Dr. Veith, your claims have always been that it was environmentalists who supported corn-derived ethanol. Not only does this Post article fail to cite any particular group (I’ve asked for some sort of reference several times, but have yet to hear one), but it doesn’t even say it was environmentalists that “promoted [ethanol] as a way to slow climate change”!

    Now, you may make the assumption that “Who else but environmentalists would promote ethanol in such a way?” My answer would be, in part: the same people who are promoting ethanol as cited in your article. That is, politicians. “Look, we did something about the environment! Vote for us!”

    Want proof? My Googling turned up this quote from yesterday (two months after the Science article cited above!)

    “Florida’s businesses continue to demonstrate that there is gold in green, and climate-friendly energy sources — like ethanol and solar energy — are bringing new prospects for our state,” said [Republican Florida] Governor Charlie Crist.

    He’s actually been pushing ethanol since 2007. Of course, you can find quotes from before this year — by Democrats and Republicans — promoting ethanol in the context of dealing with climate change. But environmentalists? Again, there are probably some, but no one’s pointed to any yet.

    “Farm-state lawmakers” have consistently supported ethanol, and I would guess for reasons that often have little to do with climate change. But I don’t doubt they promoted it in part as a solution for climate change. It plays better with the population at large than just saying, “It’s a pork earmark, whaddya gonna do?”

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    This is actually beneficial for small family farms because it starts to equalize the price difference. These animals shouldn’t be eating corn- it is very unhealthy for them and for us. Let’s get the animals back on pasture and get our food from small family farms!

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    This is actually beneficial for small family farms because it starts to equalize the price difference. These animals shouldn’t be eating corn- it is very unhealthy for them and for us. Let’s get the animals back on pasture and get our food from small family farms!

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    As for corn’s impact on our industrial food production, well, it’s yet another proof of the law of unintended consequences and how government subsidies change whole industries to consume whatever money the government is handing out.

    It’s foolish for us to feed corn to our cows — they’re not designed to eat it, it causes them stomach problems, increases the amount of E. Coli in our meat, and requires a whole slew of antibiotics. All for a corn diet. (Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma explains this quite well, as well as the impact of corn on our lives.) But it’s apparently still worth all that, so cheap is (or was) subsidized corn.

    And why do we use corn to sweeten things? Because high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is so easy to tease out of corn? No, because corn is (or was) cheap. I was surprised when I went to Australia to see that they mainly use plain old sucrose or sugars derived from wheat to sweeten their candy. Not so much cheap corn over there.

    And why, oh, why, is there corn in the most popular American beers? Is it because of traditional adherence to the Reinheitsgebot? Great gravy, no! It’s because corn is (or was) cheap.

    But the foods this will overwhelmingly affect are the processed foods that came to rely on corn precisely because it was so cheap. There’s no reason for corn to be in our sodas or salad dressings. When I make dressing myself, you can be sure I don’t put corn in it (though it might be in my salad).

    For the health of our nation (its people, its land, its water, and its air), I’d prefer to see us get rid of the corn subsidies and ethanol subsidies entirely.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    As for corn’s impact on our industrial food production, well, it’s yet another proof of the law of unintended consequences and how government subsidies change whole industries to consume whatever money the government is handing out.

    It’s foolish for us to feed corn to our cows — they’re not designed to eat it, it causes them stomach problems, increases the amount of E. Coli in our meat, and requires a whole slew of antibiotics. All for a corn diet. (Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma explains this quite well, as well as the impact of corn on our lives.) But it’s apparently still worth all that, so cheap is (or was) subsidized corn.

    And why do we use corn to sweeten things? Because high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is so easy to tease out of corn? No, because corn is (or was) cheap. I was surprised when I went to Australia to see that they mainly use plain old sucrose or sugars derived from wheat to sweeten their candy. Not so much cheap corn over there.

    And why, oh, why, is there corn in the most popular American beers? Is it because of traditional adherence to the Reinheitsgebot? Great gravy, no! It’s because corn is (or was) cheap.

    But the foods this will overwhelmingly affect are the processed foods that came to rely on corn precisely because it was so cheap. There’s no reason for corn to be in our sodas or salad dressings. When I make dressing myself, you can be sure I don’t put corn in it (though it might be in my salad).

    For the health of our nation (its people, its land, its water, and its air), I’d prefer to see us get rid of the corn subsidies and ethanol subsidies entirely.

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    DOWN WITH CORN! DOWN WITH CORN! Except for the sweet varieties that you eat right off the cob.

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    DOWN WITH CORN! DOWN WITH CORN! Except for the sweet varieties that you eat right off the cob.

  • Paul

    I asked my friend and Elder in the congregation who also happens to chair the biology department at a state university in Minnesota about the use of corn for ethanol. He points out several things I found interesting. Perhaps the impact this discussion. First, corn was used for ethanol in the midwest because we had piles and piles and piles of it going to rot. It was capitalism that chose corn. Second, corn is known in the industry to not be the best raw material for producing ethanol; but researching and retooling the industry will take some time. Interestingly, the his department is finding that the best products are grown in land that won’t grow corn, such as low and wet areas of fields now being unused. Third, the best corn to use for ethenol isn’t the corn we eat; it’s the corn that animals eat. Even so, the capitalists have found that you can take the ethanol out of animal feed corn and lose very little nutritional value for the cattle. Plants are already retooling to process the bio “waste” of producing ethanol so that it can still be used to feed cattle. Finally, the impact on world food supplies should (in his opinion) be only measured by the number of acres that aren’t going into producing human foods because corn is in such demand. That brings us back to finding other, better source plants for producing ethanol that don’t impact land used to grow crops for humans — which is exactly what the biology department at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN is focusing on. He says, give it a little more time.

    Just “food for thought.”

  • Paul

    I asked my friend and Elder in the congregation who also happens to chair the biology department at a state university in Minnesota about the use of corn for ethanol. He points out several things I found interesting. Perhaps the impact this discussion. First, corn was used for ethanol in the midwest because we had piles and piles and piles of it going to rot. It was capitalism that chose corn. Second, corn is known in the industry to not be the best raw material for producing ethanol; but researching and retooling the industry will take some time. Interestingly, the his department is finding that the best products are grown in land that won’t grow corn, such as low and wet areas of fields now being unused. Third, the best corn to use for ethenol isn’t the corn we eat; it’s the corn that animals eat. Even so, the capitalists have found that you can take the ethanol out of animal feed corn and lose very little nutritional value for the cattle. Plants are already retooling to process the bio “waste” of producing ethanol so that it can still be used to feed cattle. Finally, the impact on world food supplies should (in his opinion) be only measured by the number of acres that aren’t going into producing human foods because corn is in such demand. That brings us back to finding other, better source plants for producing ethanol that don’t impact land used to grow crops for humans — which is exactly what the biology department at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN is focusing on. He says, give it a little more time.

    Just “food for thought.”

  • Joe

    I personally don’t eat many processed foods (I can afford not to) but I will also not condemn all processed foods for one simple reason. We live in a country where the poor are much more likely to be fat than to starve. Corporate farming (with all of its warts and it has many, many warts) has helped us come as close as is possible to ended starvation in this country.

    If we were to revert back to the era of small family farms, we would also revert back to the era of starvation.

  • Joe

    I personally don’t eat many processed foods (I can afford not to) but I will also not condemn all processed foods for one simple reason. We live in a country where the poor are much more likely to be fat than to starve. Corporate farming (with all of its warts and it has many, many warts) has helped us come as close as is possible to ended starvation in this country.

    If we were to revert back to the era of small family farms, we would also revert back to the era of starvation.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Joe (@6), if starvation were the only thing to consider, that might be all there was to say. But of course, the processed foods we have subsidized (and thus made the best option for the poor) have many health effects, none of them good that I can think of (except the calories they provide that stave off starvation).

    What percentage of people die of starvation today? How about back before the era of processed foods from cheap corn and soybeans? And what percentage of people suffer from (and die from) the “Western” diseases associated with obesity and the modern, processed diet? These would be more interesting questions to answer to fully evaluate this diet.

    Besides, if you think it’s good for the government to subsidize food for the poor (this is what you’re praising, albeit via corporate farmers and processors), then there are ways to go about this that actually benefit the poor. We could redirect all corn and soybean subsidies into food stamps or something similar. Or we could subsidize food that’s good for people — vegetables, perhaps.

    But right now, I’d say that the poor are neither fully benefiting from these subsidies, nor were the poor really the reason for the subsidies.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Joe (@6), if starvation were the only thing to consider, that might be all there was to say. But of course, the processed foods we have subsidized (and thus made the best option for the poor) have many health effects, none of them good that I can think of (except the calories they provide that stave off starvation).

    What percentage of people die of starvation today? How about back before the era of processed foods from cheap corn and soybeans? And what percentage of people suffer from (and die from) the “Western” diseases associated with obesity and the modern, processed diet? These would be more interesting questions to answer to fully evaluate this diet.

    Besides, if you think it’s good for the government to subsidize food for the poor (this is what you’re praising, albeit via corporate farmers and processors), then there are ways to go about this that actually benefit the poor. We could redirect all corn and soybean subsidies into food stamps or something similar. Or we could subsidize food that’s good for people — vegetables, perhaps.

    But right now, I’d say that the poor are neither fully benefiting from these subsidies, nor were the poor really the reason for the subsidies.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Whoops, that should read “nor are the poor”

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Whoops, that should read “nor are the poor”


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