The Corner

Saving the world is cheaper than free

I’m not the first to comment on Deroy’s Murdock’s piece today, but it is just such a devastating and sad story that it cannot be repeated too often. Our government’s negligence and perhaps even malicious misdirection of societal resources toward a worthless, unwanted product — ethanol — will cause millions of people to go hungry tonight.

This anecdote from today’s editorial is truly eye-catching:

Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club has started limiting sales of rice because immigrants are buying all the rice they can and sending it to relatives in countries suffering from food shortages.

Deroy sums up:

If scientists can develop ethanol that neither starves people nor rapes the Earth, splendid. However, this enterprise must not rest upon morally repugnant, ecologically counterproductive, economically devastating, government-ordered distortions.

The way things are going, this could become the worst chapter yet in the sad, ruinous history of our bipartisan agricultural welfare programs. For those who write in and protest that free-market capitalism is an uncompassionate, un-Christian economic system, I submit that you are currently witnessing the alternative.

A simple repeal of the ethanol mandate would cost nothing, and it would benefit everyone everywhere except for a farm lobby that is currently profiting from the kind of human suffering that most Americans have never experienced. Read Deroy’s piece for several poignant examples.

UPDATE:

My last couple of hours have been consumed reading up on the food-fuel situation, and there is real reason for concern. This from the World Bank:

“The grain required to fill the tank of a Sports utility vehicle with ethanol (240 kg of maize for 100 litre ethanol) could feed one person for a year, so competition between food and fuel is real.”

So how does that add up? Check out this piece in Foreign Affairs, from last year’s May-June issue:

In a study of global food security we conducted in 2003, we projected that given the rates of economic and population growth, the number of hungry people throughout the world would decline by 23 percent, to about 625 million, by 2025, so long as agricultural productivity improved enough to keep the relative price of food constant.

But if, all other things being equal, the prices of staple foods increased because of demand for biofuels, as the [International Food Policy Research Institute] projections suggest they will, the number of food-insecure people in the world would rise by over 16 million for every percentage increase in the real prices of staple foods. That means that 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025 — 600 million more than previously predicted.

The world’s poorest people already spend 50 to 80 percent of their total household income on food. For the many among them who are landless laborers or rural subsistence farmers, large increases in the prices of staple foods will mean malnutrition and hunger. Some of them will tumble over the edge of subsistence into outright starvation, and many more will die from a multitude of hunger-related diseases.

That is scary. I have no idea how accurate the projection is, or how reliable the authors are (although I don’t think Foreign Affairs gives space to just anyone). But even assuming that they exaggerate the situation’s gravity by a factor of ten, it is hard to see how anyone could support a policy with such results. I’m sure no one intended this sort of thing to happen, and there’s no good reason why it cannot be reversed.

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