Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ethanol and protectionism

I heard on the radio the other day about how the increase in the general price of food is being traced back specifically to the increase in corn prices. The logic is that corn is an important source of animal feed so as it becomes more expensive, there is a ripple effect that drives up the price of feed which in turn drives up the price of meat.

The cause of the rise of corn prices? Apparently it is ethanol. Because of the alternative fuel craze, ethanol producers are gobbling up supply of corn and driving the prices up. To venture backed ethanol companies, this rise in prices may not seem like such a big deal (and the farmer certainly love it!) But for the rest of us who like to eat, a rise in food prices is yet another dent in our already banged up wallet.

And with that, the two radio shock jocks went on to slam ethanol, the environmental movement, and the whole green craze for causing more trouble that it is worth.

Taking what they said on the connection between corn and food prices at face value (certainly seems plausible), it is still hard to blame ethanol producers for the run up in corn prices. This is not a green question, this is an economics question.

Agriculture is a heavily protected industry in the US (and much of the world.) As a move to boost farmers’ incomes in the Midwest, the US government has been supporting and protecting the US corn-based ethanol business.

There are however rivers of cheaper sugarcane-based ethanol coming out of Brazil. If the government were to relax protection, these rivers would flood into the US market. The result would be cheaper ethanol that would displace the more expensive corn-based ethanol. This in turn would reduce demand for corn and prices would drop. So if the market was allowed to operate unencumbered, we would have cheaper food and cheaper ethanol.

So if the shock-jocks on some random Bay Area radio station are listening, it is not ethanol or environmentalism that is driving up prices, it is agricultural protectionism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

US policy on alternative fuels (ethanol) is more than "agricultural protectionism"; why don't we just call it what it really is: farm subsidy. Billions and billions of dollars of it.

I don't recall the specifics but more energy is supposedly required to produce corn-based ethanol than what can be unleashed from end product.

But in any case, those shock jocks are doing a disservice to the general public by sensationalizing the (possible) causal relationship of food prices and corn ethanol, and the irony is that corn ethanol is hardly "green" considering it's not even net positive energy-wise.