The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Corn Ethanol Fuels Riots

Corn ethanol gets just about everything wrong: it increases emissions, it starves the world’s poor, it isn’t efficient, and it drains billions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies. As it turns out, it might also be responsible for last year’s violent labor protests in South Africa and food protests in Haiti and Argentina. The story was covered here at The American Interest last October, but on Monday Real Clear Energy gave a nice summary touching on the correlation between food prices and civil unrest:

[T]he authors argue that even autocratic governments can maintain their legitimacy as long as they are able to provide basic necessities. “When the ability of the political system to provide security for the population breaks down, popular support disappears.” [...]

With regard to South Africa, the authors write: “Worker demands for dramatic pay increases reflect that their wages have not kept up with drastic increases in the prices of necessities, especially food.”

As RCE says, it’s important not to conflate correlation with causation. But when food prices rise beyond a certain threshold, protests become more likely. The logic is simple and sound: hungry people are desperate people, as the data bears out.

The UN urged the US to cut its ethanol mandates last August to help ease spiking world food prices. The Obama administration needs to end this biofuel boondoggle and consider funding R&D (not subsidies) for alternative biofuels like cellulosic ethanol, as RCE suggests (and as we have suggested too). If not for the sake of emissions, efficiency, or the world’s starving poor, then for a more stable geopolitical landscape.

Published on March 20, 2013 8:30 am