Will alternative fuels deplete global corn supplies?

Corn Today: Burning the Cob at Both Ends
While turning corn into gasoline may sound like a feat worthy of King Midas, not everyone thinks the ethanol industry has the golden touch.
While turning corn into gasoline may sound like a feat worthy of King Midas, not everyone thinks the ethanol industry has the golden touch.
N. Beckerman/Stone/Getty Images

There's a certain poetic irony to the idea of modern society breaking free from its dependence on dwindling fossil fuels only to starve millions due to ethanol production. After all, it falls right in line with our human habit of trading one vice for another. We quit drinking and just wind up buying more cigarettes. We beat our nicotine addictions only to rediscover junk food. It seems only natural that humanity might take an unsustainable thirst for petroleum and exchange it for an equally ravenous hunger for ethanol.

In 2008, rising food costs resulted in government tariffs, trade restrictions and social unrest in parts of the developing world. Food riots in Haiti even proved lethal. Food prices had tripled in the previous three years, and financial forecasts called for an additional 7 percent rise in 2009 [source: Fox News]. When it came to placing blame, no single scapegoat presented itself. Rather, a host of reasons for the spiraling costs of food presented themselves, including increased consumption, floods, droughts, pests, rising petroleum costs and a struggling global economy.

The most talked-about culprit, however, was the increased demand for biofuels such as ethanol. Ethanol is typically made from varieties of corn you'd never find on your dinner plate. These varieties of inedible corn are instead intended for use as livestock feed or the production of high fructose corn syrup. So ethanol eats up corn that could otherwise support the meat industry or, to a lesser extent, the nutrient-free world of candy and sodas. In addition, those same fields could be used to grow edible corn and other food crops.

In the United States, the demand for corn rose from 10.6 billion bushels in 2004 to an estimated 12.7 billion bushels in 2008 [source: Christopherson]. Over those four years, food demand slid from 7.6 to 6.7 billion bushels, while ethanol demand rose from 1.2 to 4 billion bushels [source: Christopherson]. As the United States produces between 60 and 70 percent of world corn exports, this kind of fluctuation can have quite an impact, such as influencing April 2008's record high price of $6.03 per bushel, up 30 percent from the beginning of the year [source: Gioia].

Those are some frightening figures, especially if you live in a country where a large­ percentage of your income goes to ensure your food supply. Some analysts, however, think change is just around the corner.