Ethanol Raises Prices As Part Of Continuing Crusade To Liberate Nation From Expensive Foreign Oil

Ethanol is billed as the answer to America’s addiction to foreign oil, but the immense demand for the corn, from which ethanol is made, is also raising prices in supermarkets and restaurants across the nation. The demand to transform corn into ethanol has already doubled the average price for a bushel of corn from $2 to $4.

The corn price increases flow like gravy down the food chain, to grocery stores and menus. The cost of rounded cubed steak at local Harris Teeters is up from $4.59 last year to $5.29 this year, according to TheGroceryGame.com, which tracks prices. The Palm restaurant chain recently raised prices as much as $2 for a New York strip. And so on.

Michael Pollan best summarized our little-known reliance on corn in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

(Photo: Eduardo Mueses)

Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins. (Yes, it’s in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.This goes for the nonfood items as well: Everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on he cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn. Even in Produce on a day when there’s ostensibly no corn for sale you’ll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce’s perfection, even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed, the supermarket itself–the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built–is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

Corn, like the oil it is meant to supplant, is already everywhere; but don’t worry just yet. Rick Tolman, chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association, is convinced that farmers will eventually ride this one-trick pony into the ground: “Farmers have a way of, every time prices go high, they almost always overproduce until they drive down the price to the marginal level where they can’t make any money anymore.” — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

The Rising Tide of Corn [Washington Post]

Comments

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  1. robotprom says:

    look at your labels, high fructose corn syrup is in everything.

  2. Hawk07 says:

    Just wait until Hollywood gets their way with oil and Global Warming.

    The next “cause” will be how Americans are literally taking corn products out of the hands of starving African children to feed our huge SUVs.

  3. iMike says:

    Further irony: It takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the energy represented by the end product. So this effort to reduce dependency on foreign oil, in addition to driving up the cost of groceries (disproportionately impacting those of low to moderate income) may actually exacerbate our foreign oil problem.

    Plus commercial farming is an environmental nightmare.

    Thanks, but no thanks.

  4. coss3n says:

    @robotprom: this is the one good thing that might come from the giant swindle that is ethanol. if corn prices go sky-high, america might go back to sweetening its products with *gasp* sugar.

  5. hypnotik_jello says:

    Or how about we just create ethanol from (gasp) sugar, or other cellulous based products – switchgrass anyone?

  6. Hawk07 says:

    Haha… good posts, keep ‘em coming!

    Throughout history, that have been periods where people comment and generally accept principles because they “just seem right”. (i.e. the Earth is flat!?!) Then, scientific knowledge prevailed decades or centuries later and what we though we knew was remarkably wrong.

    So, everytime we start the GW and oil debate, I remind myself how wrong “experts” have been in the past.

  7. I’m with you coss3n, anything that may get that rotten HCFS out of everything on the shelves can’t be all bad. I mean, does ketchup really need a sweetener added to it?

  8. timmus says:

    I think we’d be better served by just burning a huge stockpile of millions of tons of food and oil. It would have essentially the same effect producing the strain on the domestic corn supply AND on oil imports (to obtain and process the ethanol, of course).

  9. angryconsumer says:

    If you compare HFCS Coke to sugar Coke, HFCS is horrible. Really can’t stand it.

  10. karmaghost says:

    Ethanol is so inefficient, when compared to oil, it’s such a waste in order to merely reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We need to forget about gasoline in general and work on hydrogen and electrics. Ethanol is not a solution, it’s another problem.

  11. Bourque77 says:

    @hypnotik_jello: They do it in brazil and its quite a bit cheaper, at least for them it is.

  12. skrom says:

    Yes we DO need sugar in Ketchup, otherwise it would taste too much like tomatoes. This is why I will ONLY buy Heinz because all the other brands taste too much like tomatoes.

  13. Charles Duffy says:

    @coss3n, karmaghost: Ethanol in and of itself isn’t that bad. It’s corn-based ethanol, specifically, which is hideously inefficient.

    Sugarcane-based ethanol, for instance, makes excellent economic sense.

  14. philipbarrett says:

    @Bourque77:

    The Brazilian government heavily subsidized the development of ethanol & forced/coerced their citizens to switch. There are now concerns that the demand for ethanol producing crops is contributing to the depletion of the rain forests.

    Oops, I forgot, rain forest preservation is sooo last century, it’s like out there with acid rain.

  15. s35flyer says:

    Ethanol is a bogus product, pushed on us by the farmers and their highly paid lobbyists and congress persons in their pocket. If America really cared and was really interested in this then the Ethanol would come from sugar cane which is 1000% times as efficent, but guess why that is not the strategy.

  16. a_m_m_b says:

    @coss3n: i wish! HFCS needs to go & the sooner the better.

    @angryconsumer: the mini walmart market place & burrito bandito (here in Glendale AZ anyway) both carry sugar Coke by the bottle. makes for a nice treat! :)

  17. Landru says:

    I dunno about Hollywood, but the idea of burning corn as fuel when people are starving in the world really unsettles me.

  18. FMulder says:

    Starving people, especially outside the U.S., don’t need U.S. grown corn. What they need are crops, locally-grown and diversified, not foreign dumps of excess corn.

  19. TWinter says:

    @Landru: Even prior to ethanol, very little of the US corn crop was used directly as food. The biggest chunk went to animal feed, and processed foods are full of corn derivatives – corn starch, corn oil, and high fructose corn syrup. It’s food, but not good for you food. And corn derivatives are also used to make other types of non-food products.

    BTW, did you know that HFCS, corn oil, and soybean oil are shipped around by rail in giant tanker cars?

    PS – I can easily get photos of an ADM HFCS tanker car if Consumerist could use one.

  20. r81984 says:

    @Bourque77:

    Ethanol is cheaper in Brazil because they use sugar cane and switchgrass to create their ethanol.

    Whoever started the corn ethanol BS by ignoring years of trial an error by Brazil needs to kill themselves.

  21. jwissick says:

    Ethanol is a scam…. Does not provide enough energy to replace gas and we would have to turn most of the US land into farms to provide enough energy for the country.

    Go NUCLEAR!!

  22. ZonzoMaster says:

    What i wonder is, did the people who agreed to use ethanol thought nobody would figure out all this numbers? Because it’s a very simple calculation… maybe they will put their hands on their ears and yell “lies” over and *cough*likeglobarwarming*cough* over.

  23. ZonzoMaster says:

    And my comment was about corn based ethanol, and sorry if there was bad grammar somewhere.

  24. johnnyprozac says:

    (Switch on Charlton Heston Voice)

    BRAZILLIAN ETHANOL IS MADE OF SUGAR! SUGAR!!!!

    So will those commentors who talk about ethanol as a whole and what an inefficient waste it is please specify exactly which ethanol they are talking about?

    The reason why sugar is not put forward by the current Administration is essentially because the special interests they are appeasing generally live in areas where sugarcane cannot be grown (i.e. the Midwest). Sugarcane generally requires specific conditions ( frost free, immense amounts of rain, well drained soil) to grow.

    Sugarcane can readily and is grown in Hawaii. Puerto Rico. These locations don’t have too much political clout. Florida does. But again, you have powerful midwest farming lobby vs. these less powerful areas where sugar does grow. The midwest and Farming corporations win.

    Switchgrass, on the other hand grows so readily and easily that these special interests cannot realistically ask for subsidies to encourage its use. It literally grows everywhere and very easily. What’s the point if one can’t extort money from the government?

  25. Roundonbothends says:

    And as if this stuff were useful. My (old, paid for) Ford’s manual says that it can handle only 5% ethanol without dire things happening. My much newer (not paid for yet) diesel Dodge can handle no more than 20% biodiesel according to Cummins.

    So even if the economics of this weren’t a blatant lie, I don’t have a vehicle that can really benefit from this at all.

  26. Scott says:

    Ethanol from corn production returns 125% of the energy than it uses (gasoline production is ~90% efficient). Yes, sugarcane is better at making ethanol but the climate in the US outside of Hawaii is not well suited to growing sugarcane. How can we make ethanol from sugarcane if we can’t grow it? Ethanol from cellulose has great promise but we can’t yet produce it cheap enough.

    You can bitch about the price of corn all you want but US farmers have overproduced for 25 years and kept the price low. If corn had increased in price at the same rate as inflation from 1980, it would be over $5 a bushel rather than the $4 it is now.

  27. ancientsociety says:

    @s35flyer:

    “Ethanol is a bogus product, pushed on us by the multinational food corporations and their highly paid lobbyists and congress persons in their pocket.”

    Fixed that for you. The minority of family- ,small- , and organic-farms in this country barely make enough to stay afloat. Certainly not enough to pay for the ethanol fleecing of America.

  28. CaptainRoin says:

    “Farmers have a way of, every time prices go high, they almost always overproduce until they drive down the price to the marginal level where they can’t make any money anymore.”

    I don’t understand how this can be true. I thought the majority of ethanol plants were just getting going, therefore they would require more and more corn in coming years. How much corn can we grow here?

  29. JustAGuy2 says:

    @Scott:

    We shouldn’t BE growing sugarcane. We should be importing it from places it grows very well. Instead, due to the political clout of Florida sugar farmers, who have set huge protective tariffs on sugar, we use corn sweeteners.

  30. Scott says:

    @CaptainRoin:

    We’ve been overproducing corn for years. The government has been giving subsidies to keep farmers in business and buying corn and giving it as foreign aid.

    We can produce more corn by not planting as many acres of other crops, primarily soybeans, and by ending various support programs. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers not to farm 33 million acres (7-10% of total US cropland).

  31. mac-phisto says:

    Farmers have a way of, every time prices go high, they almost always overproduce until they drive down the price to the marginal level where they can’t make any money anymore.

    -Rick Tolman, chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association

    that right there is awesome! way to have some faith in your constituents, rick!

    anyway, a lot of people have been posting about the concept of using sugar instead of corn for ethanol. read a little bit about sugar quotas & you’ll understand why everything uses HFCS instead of sugar. even at $4/bushel, corn is exponentially cheaper than sugar in the u.s.

    i posted this link on an earlier ethanol article, but i’ll do it again b/c i think this company (if it succeeds in its ultimate goal) is the shit (no pun intended).

    check it out: algae-based ethanol that is exponentially more efficient than other known methods, grown in the process of breaking up solid waste & has purified water as a byproduct. that’s a triple win right there. too bad you’ll only get to take advantage of it if you live in new zealand.

    [www.aquaflowgroup.com]

  32. mac-phisto says:

    wow. that’s some funky tag action right there.

  33. @hypnotik_jello: Shhh! Don’t tell Congress! The entire farm bill is predicated on corn production on the theory that the entire Midwest will revolt if they takes away our corn subsidies!

    @noasalira: “Starving people, especially outside the U.S., don’t need U.S. grown corn.”

    Corn isn’t all that digestable anyway. You have to have, like, lime in your diet or something or you don’t digest the corn. Or maybe it’s prepare the corn with something really alkaline. I forget. Anyway, that’s why you poop kernels after you eat corn. It’s not really a great subsistence food or crop for starving people unless they have cheap local whatever-it-is that you need to make corn digestible.

  34. jeffislouie says:

    No surprise to this guy.
    Ethanol is a sham with hidden consequences.
    It isn’t the miracle fuel that the wacko environmentalists from the church of global warming says it is.
    Yes, it takes more energy to produce than it ends up with, making it highly inneffienct. Yes, it is more expensive than regular unleaded. Yes, your car has less power when run on ethanol. Yes, the mileage your car can get is reduced with ethanol. This makes ethanol as automotive fuel a total sham.
    Yes, ethanol is raising the price of corn which will affect other food supplies. Steak, dairy, chicken, and other food products will increase in cost as demand for corn goes up. Already, parts of Mexico are reporting malnutrition in their population because a staple of their diet, the tortilla, is no longer as affordable as it once was, forcing the poor to reduce consumption of what was an affordable food full of nutrition.
    All to appease a group so set in their views that their only response to anyone who questions the ‘consensus’ (a principle against scientific reasoning) is to call them a denier and lump them into a group they describe as neo-con so as to minimalize their views. As scientists continue to break with the theory of global warming, they find themselves ridiculed and publicly shamed by people who care about getting funding and pushing an agenda more than making sure their theory holds water and is provable.
    Here we stand, folks. We look to the far left and want to believe that they have our best interests in mind. Do they? Just watch as a gallon of milk becomes more expensive than a gallon of gas. Watch as the poor are driven into malnutrition. Watch as they screech their message across the country and convince people that global warming is real, even though it is based on faulty computer models and bad science. Owl Gore has already trained ‘preachers’ to travel the country, delivering his message.
    I’m not going to get into an argument about the validity of global warming here. I will say this:
    Be a good steward of this earth. Don’t throw your trash out the window of your car when you have a bumper sticker that supports global warming theory.
    And don’t let the global warming contingency dictate to you what costs are acceptable. When meat and dairy become too expensive for people to eat, won’t people die from malnutrition?
    I’m not buying it. And there is a growing number of us not buying it. What a shame it is that the global warming wackos have already ended the debate, especially since the debate didn’t get a chance to begin.

  35. sporesdeezeez says:

    @Roundonbothends:

    My much newer (not paid for yet) diesel Dodge can handle no more than 20% biodiesel according to Cummins.

    Dude, that sucks. I am just getting on the diesel bandwagon (’87 GMC 4×4 Crew Cab), and I have high hopes for biodiesel running in it – at least in one tank. Why is the Cummins BD-intolerant? Is it something to do with its high performance? Or did they use a lot of rubber?

    BD seems like a much more viable fuel than ethanol. You can get decent yields from crops we can grow in the US, such as soybeans – 3x more than ethanol from corn – and tallow – 50x more than ethanol from corn! You can recycle all kinds of other oils for this use, as well. The diesel engine is coming closer and closer to being smooth, quiet, and commuter-friendly (it already is smooth and quiet on modern light/medium trucks). I think it has a bright future, even if it’s only for industrial/commercial applications.

    I dunno. People are writing off the ICE as a relic already, but I question that. I think the need for a high-density, portable energy source is going to persist for quite some time, worldwide, and right now we’re a long way from coming up with anything better than oils. Give it a decade or so and maybe we’ll see batteries catch up (and don’t link me to the Tesla Roadster until they make a Tesla Minivan), or maybe we’ll get hydrogen down to where we get out close to what we put in…but until then…

    …the bio-fuel debate continues.

  36. ancientsociety says:

    @jeffislouie:

    “I’m not going to get into an argument about the validity of global warming here.”

    “….wacko environmentalists from the church of global warming…And don’t let the global warming contingency dictate to you….global warming wackos have already ended the debate…..”

    Nope, no bias there…

  37. jeffislouie says:

    @ancientsociety:
    I didn’t claim to have no bias.
    I clearly do have one.
    Just like those who worship at the church of global warming do.
    I don’t buy any argument when I am told the debate is over.
    Especially when the debate didn’t exist.
    Yes. I am biased.
    I don’t believe that the global warming crew is correct. I wouldn’t have a problem with it, if not for the way it is being forced down my throat on a daily basis.
    Here we have an example of corn prices rising, dairy prices rising, meat prices rising, and increased instances of malnutrition. So why is ethanol being heralded by some as the next coming of Christ?
    All I’m saying is that there are alternatives. Just becuase Ethanol is an option, doesn’t mean it is the only option.
    See diesel, biodiesel, etc.
    There are better options out there. Ethanol seems to be one of the worst available.

  38. ancientsociety says:

    @jeffislouie: I realize that.

    But don’t make a comment like “I’m not going to get into X argument here” and then spout off about how a particular side in said argument is “whacko” and then expect to not cause said argument.

    Also, not everyone who agrees that global warming is a problem, also agrees that ethanol is “the next coming of Christ”.

  39. swalve says:

    “I mean, does ketchup really need a sweetener added to it?”

    Yes, because if it didn’t it would just be pureed tomatos.

  40. jeffislouie says:

    @ancientsociety:
    Just trying to make my point while discouraging a debate on global warming here.
    I know, futile and silly.
    My bads….
    :-)

  41. Scott says:

    @jeffislouie:

    Ethanol production from corn DOES NOT consume more energy than it produces. [www.pnas.org]

    Ethanol has less energy in a gallon than gasoline does but also has a higher octane rating so it is possible to run an engine at a higher compression ratio and get more power.

    I realize I’ll probably get crucified for this but I fail to see how starving Mexicans who have lived for years on US supplied excess corn is my problem.

    Throwing out any arguments about global warming, we still need to develop alternatives to petroleum because it won’t last forever.

  42. ancientsociety says:

    @Scott: Yes, but ethanol could produce the same amount of pollution during growing and processing that oil does.

    The fields need to be tilled and harvested by tractors that run on gas. The use of corn encourages intensive monocropping, which leads to soil erosion/degradation and the use of pesticides. Unless the procesing plant is run entirely on solar/wind/hydroelectric, the power plants are contributing to air pollution (and radioactive, in the case of nuclear plants).

    I agree that we need to look @ petroleum altneratives but I don’t think ethanol is it.

  43. Triteon says:

    Is it just me, or could the ethanol-cost argument be made moot by ending federal government payments to farmers to keep their fields fallow?

    The government saves money by ending or lowering price supports, the farmers (and yes, quite a bit is agri-business but no system is perfect) produce and sell an ever-more-valuable product, and the US can use corn for it’s various projects as well as still exporting food to impoverished peoples.

    Or am I being too simplistic?

  44. Brazell says:

    @Scott: Scott, you sure that Ethanol does not consume more energy than it produces? I was fairly certain that no viable means of energy on Earth, aside from say something in science fiction, has a positive energy production ratio?

    I think you might just mean that it has a better ratio than traditional gasoline does. But, who knows, I could be wrong… I’m a strong supporter of a Methanol economy / alternative, but I am not against Ethanol, either. My only real concern with Ethanol is the market concern; it’s obvious that we [as in, people looking for alt. fuels] did not consider, enough, the impact that the ethanol economy would have on alternate markets, not just say food for people in mexico, but also livestock, which would increase the cost of non-corn foods in general.

    Also, petroleum … technically .. will last forever because it is theoretically impossible to exhaust a natural resource, the petroleum economy simply won’t last for ever. Generally, the search of alternative fuels, IMO, can be justified by the expected political effects… which would seem bad for the third world but, arguably, pretty decent for the West.

  45. jeffislouie says:

    @Scott:
    So says you and PNAS. Others have produced different analysis.
    Here’s what one reputable scientist says:

    Dr. David Pimentel, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, says that if we ever think growing huge amounts of corn for ethanol fuel, we need to think that over. He writes:

    “Our up-to-date analysis of the 14 energy inputs that typically go into corn production and the nine invested in fermentation and distillation operations confirms that 29 percent more energy (derived from fossil fuels) is required to produce a gallon of corn ethanol than is contained in the ethanol. Ethanol from cellulosic biomass is worse: with current technology, 50 percent more energy is required to produce a gallon than the product can deliver. In any event, biomass ethanol is a bad choice from an energy standpoint.

    “The environmental impacts of corn ethanol are enormous. They include severe soil erosion, heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, and a significant contribution to global warming. In addition, each gallon of ethanol requires 1,700 gallons of water (to grow the corn) and produces six to 12 gallons of noxious organic effluent.

    “Using food crops, such as corn grain, to produce ethanol also raises major ethical concerns. More than 3.7 billion humans in the world are currently malnourished, so the need for grains and other foods is critical. Growing crops to provide fuel squanders resources. Energy conservation and development of renewable energy sources, such as solar cells and solar-based methanol synthesis, should be given priority.”

  46. Scott says:

    If you would just look at the article I linked to, most of your arguments would be answered. Here’s a nice graph that explains a lot with regard to transporting the corn, energy expended growing it, processing electricity use, etc. [www.pnas.org]

    Ethanol can return more energy because corn plants use energy from the sun to create the seeds that we can then process into ethanol. MichaelBrazell is right that no energy source on earth can return more that it consumes but he’s forgetting that the Earth is not a closed system: we get a lot of energy from the sun.

  47. jeffislouie says:

    @Scott:
    The article you cite talks about how biodiesel is more efficient.
    I read parts of it. I just don’t have the time to review the whole thing right now. Sorry.
    But transporting, refining, plowing, tilling, etc. are all done using petroleum.
    And it seems that the article also seems to let the fact that if we dedicated 100% of our corn production to creating ethanol, it would only result in a 12% reduction in petroleum needs.
    Not terribly impressive, if you ask me.
    Bio-diesel has much more promise.
    Thankfully, this debate isn’t over yet.
    Good article though.

  48. Scott says:

    @jeffislouie:

    I couldn’t find Pimentel’s article for free anywhere but I did find a rebuttal from a couple of University of Idaho researchers that found a few holes in his methodology while calculating his biodiesel numbers that reversed his findings and showed a positive energy output. [www.uidaho.edu]

    I agree, biodiesel is a more promising option (diesel in general is better).

  49. coss3n says:

    @Scott: There’s still considerable disagreement over whether corn ethanol is a net energy source or sink — and the simple reason for this is that it depends on the exact methods of production and use. The article you linked to is pretty much at the far end of the pro-ethanol scale, but even it admits that:

    “Corn grain ethanol provides smaller benefits… and it has greater environmental and human health impacts because of increased release of five air pollutants and nitrate, nitrite, and pesticides.”

    There’s also a question as to the economic viability of corn-based ethanol, which is only being produced at the moment due to massive subsidization.

    In the short-run, biodiesel really is much more promising than corn ethanol. The graph you linked to shows the exceptional energy output/input ratio. It’s also displacing a dirtier fuel, which ought to make greens happy. And there’s already a large user base — just imagine if the long-distance trucking industry went biodiesel. There just aren’t enough flex-fuel vehicles on the roads for ethanol to get much use.

    (And yes, I’m biased. But my car’s exhaust smells like french fries, so I must be right.)

  50. jeffislouie says:

    @coss3n:
    mmmm.
    French fries.

  51. coss3n says:

    @sporesdeezeez: Just a quick note about the Cummins diesel. It can run on B100 just fine (though you might want to lower the mix a bit if you live in a cold climate). The B20 thing is what they’re willing to let you operate at and still keep your engine under warranty. This was actually big news when they announced this policy, as the previous policy had been that biodiesel was “too experimental” and *any* use would violate your warranty. It can’t be long before they officially ok any blend.

    My suggestion is to run it on as high a blend as you feel you can. Then if you ever have any problems, remember to fill up your tank with some petro-diesel before taking it to anyone.

  52. bomani2k says:

    AlgOil, Oil made from algae produces up to 1500% (and climbing)more oil/svo/biodesiel than it’s nearest plant competitor on a acre for acre comparison. In addition it nearly doubles itself in 24 hours to be harvested again. Using carbon dioxide feed tanks the concentration per acre can be exponentially increased. The non oil product can be burned cleanly or used as feedstock. The ash/carbon used for water treatment and other industrial processes.

    Certainly the future of Bio fuels will rest primarily on Algoil products and be supplemented by cellulose (grass etc), and surplus or failed crops.

    A competing source of Oil will most likely come from reclamation of plastics, shale, sands, previously unusable sludge, etc using the new microwave extraction technique which allows for access to approx 5 trillion barrels of Oil or more previously out of reach…all greater than the combined oil fields of the middle east, russia, and africa. Because of new technology “dirty” oil has another hundred plus years left yet renewable sources like algae provide a cost (nature and price) benefit to explore.

    Foreign oil dependence could be ended within 2 years if politricks were not the issue.