Life is full of choices, often hard, life-changing choices. For some, the choice is food, or medicine, in many cases, literally life or death.
Do we eat sugar, or artificial sweeteners? Do we diet, or not? Do we address global warming, or deny its existence? And, most important: how do we wean ourselves off of oil and will the replacement we choose be a case of jumping from the frying pan to the fire?
The bloody conflict in the Middle East has consumed hundreds of thousands of victims and has the potential to bleed all over the region, wreaking havoc on the petroleum industry and annihilating the world economy.
In true serpentine fashion, the American energy industry and the farm sector are going all out, one defending its oil fields with hired guns and mercenaries, the other unleashing the full weight of its mighty army of word warriors, bribery bandits and bottomless bank accounts. Both have the same targets: local, state and federal lawmakers. The prize: billions of dollars in energy expenditures, alternative energy subsidies and coal credits.
Congress is itching to “do something” about the rising cost of oil, the soaring bill for the war on terror and the growing ire of a restless electorate on the cusp of a Presidential Election year. Ethanol, crop-based fuel, “clean burning coal” and bio-energy seem like answers to a desperate politician’s prayer.
However, when it comes to bio-fuels, all is not as it appears.
Touted as salvation for American farmers and farmers around the world, ethanol is both a boon and a potential disaster for the nation, and, indeed for the entire planet. Everybody wants to talk about the boon; few want to talk about the 800 pound elephant which threatens the nation—the threat to the nation’s food supply in the form of rising food prices generated by the massive increase in the demand for corn, the potential for desertification around the world as forests are cleared for corn or bio-fuel crop production, and the threat to subsistence farmers, tribes people and the working poor as cropland devoted to food production is reduced in favor of higher profit bio-fuel crops.
And, we’re not even talking about the potential for decreased quality of life, foreshortened life spans and increased medical problems created by the newest crop of bio-fuel plants growing in the nation’s Heartland. The pollution, noise, stench, ground water depletion, and other by-products of these mega-plants is not something promoters mention when they target the nation’s small towns and river cities with the possibility of jobs and economic development.
As an alternative fuel source, bio-fuels and ethanol have the potential to decrease our dependence on oil, but ethanol is not a perfect solution to this complex problem. It comes with a lot of baggage, some quite deadly. It is these deadly by-products that have generated a quiet revolution in the nation’s Corn Belt.
There’s a revolution a risin’ in corn country. In the shadow of the cornfields, downwind of the ethanol plants, coal fired power plants and bio-diesel facilities they arise. The old hippies who haven’t learned to accept pollution as the price of living in the Industrial Age. The small town dwellers, who don’t like the idea of a massive ethanol plant right in their back yards. The national environmental justice advocates, environmentalists, local protesters and every one in between, who look beyond the glowing announcements of economic development and increased markets for farmers to the consequence of ethanol and bio-fuel production.
They are talking about increased cancer rates, rising healthcare costs, the inability to attain federal air pollution standards because of ethanol plants. They talk of economic stagnation, because the ethanol plants throw out so much pollution, that the feds won’t allow other industries in the region. They talk of children and generations yet unborn. Most of all, they talk about the high cost of ethanol and gasohol plants in terms of ground water depletion, increased levels of mercury and other carcinogenic pollutants.
Ultimately, they wonder about the price they will have to pay at the grocery store for corn-based foods, and the food products sweetened by corn sweeteners. Nobody is counting the cost; but they are.
For all of the hype about ‘alternative energy’, for all of the political hoopla touting gasohol as a way to wean the nation from its dangerous dependence on foreign oil, a group of activists in Southern Indiana is sounding the alarm. The nation isn’t paying enough attention to the side effects of the rising corn based ethanol industry.
Many point to food shortages and deforestation in Brazil and parts of the Far East as major reasons to examine the ethanol industry more closely. They point to deforestation in Brazil where rain forests are being depleted and natives are displaced by the encroaching bio-crop plantations. They talk about the same problem arising in parts of Asia, as well.
In many countries, it is becoming more profitable to grow so called “fuel crops” than food crops. This generates food shortages and ultimately could cause artificially generated famines in many parts of the world.
In the United States, the increased demand for corn by the ethanol industry is already driving up the cost of corn, thereby causing a ripple effect in the food industry. Corn is more expensive. Food items made with corn, sweetened by corn-based sweeteners, manufactured with corn by products, all are more expensive.