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Going green: So, is biofuel actually in our best interests?

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Using excess or leftover corn as a fuel source sure sounded like a good idea, especially here in the U.S. Let’s get our farmers from, I don’t, Iowa, to set aside a certain percentage of arable land for the production of fuel corn. (The term “fuel corn” may or may not exist, but it should if it doesn’t.) This corn, rather than being used for food, would be used for the production of ethanol, an alcohol that can power combustion engines. Follow the logic: grow corn, which is fairly inexpensive to do, create ethanol, power car engines. Simple, direct and seemingly a possible solution to our reliance on foreign oil and all the bonus adventurism that comes with that. Grow corn at home, or meddle in other people’s affairs for access to oil?

Onward! to our bright, biofueled future. Wait, what?

There’s a word in that opening paragraph that suddenly no longer applies, apparently. What if all that corn (and other sources of biofuel) is no longer “leftover”? What if, you know, we should be using all that corn (etc.) to feed people? (Food used to feed people? Madness!) What if the price of food, for some reason, skyrocketed, and the poorer peoples of the world look longingly at all that “excess” corn being used to fuel your dumb automobile?

It would seem we, Westerners, are stuck between a rock and a rock. Big rocks. With sharp edges.

If you read any of the Big Papers, like the Financial Times, the Guardian or the New York Times—please don’t watch cable “news,” which has devolved into infotainment—you’ll have noticed an uptick in the number of stories covering some sort of food crisis. The Readers Digest version of the crisis is, as a result rising oil prices (increases transportation costs), poor climate (lots of droughts in food-producing regions) and—ding ding ding—the diversion of food-for-food to food-for-fuel has increased the price of food around the world. My local coffee place recently increased the price of a small cup of coffee by 25 cents. I mention that not for the “woe is me” factor (woe unto me for altogether different reasons), but to illustrate the fact that rising food costs isn’t merely a problem “over there.”

So we’re looking at quite the dicey situation. The world’s poor (40 percent of people live on less than two dollars a day) can no longer afford the most basic of foodstuffs, while the West hums along producing fuel to power its automobiles and other near-luxuries. (I say “near-luxuries” because, frankly, try living without a car in the U.S. outside of a few major cities; they’re “luxuries” compared to food. Call me crazy.) What should we do, how should the West react? Personally, I’m a cynical jerk, and I truly believe Americans are more concerned with who’s going to win American Idol or whether or not they’ll 100 percent GTA IV than whether some invisible foreigner can afford a loaf of bread or cup of rice. Not to be a whiny liberal, but you gotta figure most Americas are more concerned with their needs and wants than someone else’s; it’s only rational, I think. So when Americans pay, what, $4 per gallon of gas and they hear about some sort of weird “corn gasoline” that could be cheaper and can be grown in Our Backyard, you try convincing them to keep paying $4 just to save some poor person they’ll never see and never know, certainly never care about, to alter their lifestyle. It’ll take some sort of sticker shock at the supermarket for Americans writ large to even notice any food crisis.

Back to biofuel. There’s so many competing interests here that I’d rather hop on a message board and argue with a 13-year-old from Ohio whether or not the PS3 is “cool” or not. Are we gonna tell Iowa farmers to stop growing heavily subsidized and hugely profitable biofuel corn? Not if you’re an office-seeking politician, you’re not. Remind me again of Clinton, Obama and McCain’s views of ethanol? I have zero faith in politicians standing up to the ethanol pushers. Americans at home certainly aren’t going to support any schemes that prevent them from lowering their petrol bill. More biofuel, then, nuts to the rest of the world.

So we can “go green” (again, I think going green is a load of hogwash given China’s not-give-a-damn attitude toward pollution) and embrace biofuel, which doesn’t put filth into the atmosphere leading to a happy, Greener Earth, or we can actually grow food for food’s sake. I have no idea where I stand, which is how I am politically on most issues. I don’t like the idea of people starving, but if I have to be inconvenienced to make a difference… eh, I’d rather not be inconvenienced.

What dreams may come.

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