Friday, May 23, 2008

Food vs. Fuel

Here's another startling confession: My all-time favorite food is movie-theater popcorn. So much so that sometimes I go to the movies not because I want to see a particular film, but because I want to eat popcorn for dinner.

Yesterday, USA Today had a story about the rising cost of popcorn, driven by the rising cost of corn. In a companion story, the newspaper also wrote how ethanol is becoming decidedly less popular as the price of corn rises:

"Rising global food prices and shortages have spurred calls in Congress to roll back the federal mandate to blend more ethanol and other biofuels with the gasoline supply. Critics say so much corn is being used for ethanol that there's less available for people and animals to eat, raising prices of everything from tortillas to meat."

And, apparently, movie theater popcorn.

But Pete Moss, president of agricultural consultants Frazier, Barnes & Associates, says "don't blame it all on ethanol."

Yesterday, at a West Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition meeting, Moss said that the culprit behind rising food prices is a combination of high energy prices and increased demand from India and China.

China used to be a net exporter of corn; now they're a net importer of corn. Higher fuel costs are compounded in each step of the growing process, from planting to delivery.

"Some of the [corn crop] is being devoted to ethanol, but it's not a large percentage," Moss says, citing that figure at about 20 percent.

But it seems biofuel producers are meeting with some pushback. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has a fact sheet on its website entitled, "Forcing Food into Fuel: How Congressional Mandates are Making it Harder for Americans to Feed their Families."

(Of course, it mentions other causes for higher food prices — "rising energy costs, strong Asian demand" — but notes that the congressional mandate is the only factor that the government has the power to change.)

On the other hand, Moss says that if biofuel producers weren't increasing output, oil and gas prices would be up another 15 percent.

"My hope was that we'd become energy independent. Biofuel was never meant to be a short-term solution," Moss says. "We have some long-term problems."

To read a Flyer cover story about biofuel in Memphis, click here. To read a Flyer story about Memphis gas stations that sell ethanol, click here.

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