Who Ate My Tortillas?

The next blog relies on my upcoming documentary movie, Fields of Gas, (www.fieldsoffuel.com) which premieres in theaters this September.

Waste Engine Oil Distillation EquipmentFor a lot of households in Mexico, the poverty line is an all too acquainted tightrope. It is simple to fall off.

Each due to its low price and regional tradition, tortillas are a staple meals in Mexico. Throughout the previous year, the worth of corn tortillas increased by anyplace from 20% to virtually four hundred% in numerous areas of Mexico (4). For tens of millions of Mexicans, the fast and unexpected value improve means starvation.

So, who is to blame for the growing value of corn?

Many fingers point to biofuels, particularly ethanol, the alcohol gasoline predominantly made from corn within the US. Ethanol is usually bought blended into gasoline. It’s blended in ratios as low as 5% but just lately, there has been a nationwide push for extra “E85” or 85% ethanol blended with 15% gasoline. Not like other biofuels equivalent to butanol or biodiesel, ethanol is derived from the food portion of the crop. As corn costs have skyrocketed, the wisdom of constructing gas from food has been put below an more and more unforgiving microscope.

So how does this “wonder crop” actually stack up?

Corn is a low-yielding crop requiring an extraordinary quantity of pesticides and fertilizer. The National Corn Growers Affiliation estimates that 597,388 gallons of water are required per 12 months to grow an acre of corn (7). In addition, three to 4 gallons of water are required to make a single gallon of ethanol, once the crop has been harvested (1). After which there may be the pollution. In accordance with a University of Minnesota research, “if you look at your complete life-cycle of ethanol — from growing to harvest to processing to combustion — burning E85 (eighty five p.c ethanol) as gas really produces more carbon monoxide, unstable organics, particulates, and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen than an energy-equivalent quantity of gasoline (2) […]”. However you minimize it: ethanol from corn is wasteful. Many claim that corn ethanol is energy unfavourable: that signifies that for every unit of energy you place into making the fuel, you get only one unit or much less again in the final product. (This is not true for other fuels, such as biodiesel from soy, which is vitality optimistic and requires significantly much less input.)

The exorbitant amount of pesticides utilized in corn manufacturing has lead to a “useless zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen and phosphate-based (learn: petroleum-primarily based) pesticides and fertilizers are used to stimulate development in the corn plants. The compounds that are not absorbed subsequently trickle to neighboring creeks, rivers, and in the end into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf. Simply as fertilizers promote growth in plants, additionally they promote growth of algae on this region. The algal blooms deplete the oxygen supply, making it unattainable for some other plants or species to exist there. In 2005, Nationwide Geographic reported that the lifeless span of water within the Gulf of Mexico was virtually the size of recent Jersey, ranging 5,000 – eight,000-plus square miles (10).

Corn may be environmentally detrimental, however it is tough to pin the systemic problems in our international markets solely on biofuels. One want only look at the escalating costs of the world’s other staple commodities, reminiscent of cement, steel, and coffee to reveal that escalating prices usually are not restricted to corn or corn-based 30,000 cubic cans mostly products. By far the largest commodity price improve will not be in corn or wheat or soy or housing — but fairly in oil.

Ironically, each step of the ethanol course of relies on the very fossil fuel it claims to depart from, from driving tractors to creating fertilizers to transporting corn to turning it into fuel. In line with Vinod Khosla, former head of Solar Microsystems turned green fuel investor, seventy five% of the value increase in food is because of the increase in the value of oil.

As a consequence of a complex, globalized commodity chain, food in different countries is also dependent on oil. The extra steps and middlemen between a product and the oil that it depends upon, the more expensive the product. This is what occurs when Middle Japanese oil fuels U.S. corn production, which supplies the Mexican weight loss program. Because of corn overproduction within the states, the U.S. exports increasingly more corn to its southern neighbor at artificially low-cost prices, far below the value that Mexican producers may provide. Mexico now imports over 25% of its corn from the U.S., (12) regardless that it has the capability to supply sufficient corn to fulfill its needs domestically. Thus, a spike in U.S. oil costs takes dinner off of Mexican tables.

Now, shall we begin the meals vs. food debate?

The understanding that forces inside the meals sector are altering corn prices reveals another neglected level — corn is in an overwhelming portion of what we eat. Corn feeds not just cows, however poultry and even farmed fish. Additional, fifty five% of sweeteners are corn-based. Based mostly on a examine conducted by the Corn Refiners Affiliation, the typical grocery store accommodates four,000 merchandise that comprise corn in some form, not including poultry, dairy, and beef products (3). Corn is even used in paint, paper merchandise, cosmetics, tires, and plastics (9). The makers of the documentary King Corn came upon that fifty five% of the carbon content material of their hair is from corn’s household of plants (8). Corn subsidies encourage overproduction and ensure the sweet crop is dumped into each potential product.

The overabundance of corn has enhanced our means to respond to rising demands for meat. Now that corn costs are up, nevertheless, meat producers are feeling the financial pinch. In flip, meat calls for also influence corn prices. Demand for crops like corn is rapidly rising as developing nations are consuming growing portions of meat, pushing prices up and increasing competition for fundamental carbohydrates and sugars. Meals for thought: it takes 2.6 pounds of corn to provide one pound of beef and three.6 to produce a pound of pork (11).

The consequences of the oil-corn provide chain are heightened in Mexico (and plenty of developing nations). It’s because both native and foreign distributors have a close to monopoly in the corn market and since the U.S. price of corn is about by non-Mexican market forces. Two firms in Mexico management 90% of corn flour manufacturing, enabling them to set the costs of corn and tortillas (12). Earlier than the corn even reaches the arms of those big distributors, outdoors speculators decide the price of corn, very like they do with oil. While international nations lack basic foods, hundreds of tons of surplus corn sit in grain elevators within the U.S. There isn’t any shortage of corn, however fairly a worldwide provide system in a failed state.

Out of your steak dinner to the sweetener in your soda to the ethanol in your tank, corn is sort of as omnipresent in our society as oil. The two commodities are inextricably linked. The scrutiny of corn has uncovered bigger issues in American infrastructure. But just as starvation and financial crisis cannot be attributed to a single crop, we can’t clear up these problems with a single crop or gas.

Some hope could lie in combining and balancing sustainable vitality alternate options. In the meantime, as climate instability and oil price volatility continue, each meals and gas will get more expensive and further from the reach of many who can now not walk the road.

Up subsequent: Do biofuels destroy rainforests?

This weblog is based on Fields of Fuel, an upcoming documentary on the way forward for vitality. More data at www.fieldsoffuel.com.

Photograph nonetheless from the filmFields of Gasoline. Josh Tickell (left) discussing various sources of energy, equivalent to canola.

Works Cited

1) Aden, Andy. “Water Utilization for Current and Future Ethanol Production.” National Renewable Power Laboratory. Southwest Hydrology, 2007.

2) Breining, Greg. “Five Causes Corn Ethanol Will not Save the Planet.”

Three) “Often Requested Questions about Corn in Iowa.” Iowa Corn Growers Association.

4) Gonzalez, Susana et al. “Caos en el precio de la tortilla.” La Jornada 11 Jan. 2007.

5) Mercola, Joseph. “How Excessive Fructose Corn Syrup Damages Your Physique.” Organic Shoppers Affiliation. 10 July 2007.

6) Nalley, Lanier, and Darren Hudson. “The Potential Viability of Biomass Ethanol as a Renewable Gasoline Supply: a Discussion.” Dept of Agricultural Economics, Mississippi State University. 2003.

7) “NCGA Talking Points.” National Corn Growers Affiliation. 2007.

Eight) O’Donnel, Kim. “United States of Corn.” The Washington Put up. 19 Oct. 2007. .

9) “One Kernel, A Thousand Uses: Merchandise Made from Corn. Kentucky Corn Growers Affiliation.

10) Roach, Justin. “Gulf of Mexico “Useless Zone” Is Dimension of recent Jersey.” Nationwide Geographic Information. 25 May 2005.

Eleven) “Understanding the Influence of higher Corn Costs on Consumer Meals Prices.” National Corn Growers Association. 26 March 2007.

12) Zahniser, Steven, and Coyle, William. “US-Mexico Corn Trade Through the NAFTA Period: New Twists to an Previous Story.” USDA Financial Research Service.

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