U.S. Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars While Hunger is on the Rise

The 107 million tons of grain that went to U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total U.S. grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004.

The United States looms large in the world food economy: it is far and away the worldโ€™s leading grain exporter, exporting more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined. In a globalized food economy, increased demand for food to fuel American vehicles puts additional pressure on world food supplies.

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive hunger for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The Earth Policy Institute has noted that even if the entire U.S. grain crop were converted to ethanol (leaving no domestic crop to make bread, rice, pasta, or feed the animals from which we get meat, milk, and eggs), it would satisfy at most 18 percent of U.S. automotive fuel needs.

Ethanol Demand, Rising Food Prices, and Hunger

When the growing demand for corn for ethanol helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008, people in low-income grain-importing countries were hit the hardest. The unprecedented spike in food prices drove up the number of hungry people in the world to over 1 billion for the first time in 2009. Though the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has recently brought food prices down from their peak, they still remain well above their long-term average levels.

The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once can feed one person for an entire year. The average income of the owners of the worldโ€™s 940 million automobiles is at least ten times larger than that of the worldโ€™s 2 billion hungriest people. In the competition between cars and hungry people for the worldโ€™s harvest, the car is destined to win.

Continuing to divert more food to fuel, as is now mandated by the U.S. federal government in its Renewable Fuel Standard, will likely only reinforce the disturbing rise in hunger. By subsidizing the production of ethanol, now to the tune of some $6 billion each year, U.S. taxpayers are in effect subsidizing rising food bills at home and around the world.

For more information on the competition between cars and people for grain, see Chapter 2 in Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), on-line for free downloading with supporting datasets.

  1. colluvial

    And of course, the vital question here is: Is any benefit derived from the hunger and $6 billion of taxpayer money, besides the short-term enrichment of the ethanol industry? Or is this just a shell game where fossil fuel is converted into ethanol?

  2. Global Patriot

    While biofuels are valid options under certain conditions, using not food sources for example, the idea that we would put edible grain in our gas tanks while millions go hungry is not a sustainable, logical or humanitarian solution.

  3. mog

    End subsidies. Including national endowment of the arts, and the petro and coal subsidies. Of course, that will do NOTHING to end hunger. Undernourished people live where there is not enough food. The solutions are:
    Bring food to them [burning tons of petroleum]
    Bring them to food [burning tons of petroleum]
    Enable them to produce their own food. The last is the only viable option. So, get off-line, get a degree in Agriculture, and join the Peace Corps.

  4. Annie

    It is important to note, however, that a large number of go hungry not for lack of food, but because the local despot funnels relief aid into his private bank account. Food is power.
    I agree with mog. What many of these countries need is not our grain– rather, they need the technologies to help local farmers raise their crop yield.

  5. colluvial

    “While biofuels are valid options under certain conditions, using not food sources for example . . .”
    If non-food crops displace edible crops, the net effect is the same – less food.

    “What many of these countries need is not our grainโ€“ rather, they need the technologies to help local farmers raise their crop yield.”
    Supporting local self-sufficiency is the way to go. Dumping cheap grain into a country can devastate the local agricultural economy. However, regardless of the technologies that might come to the rescue of some, others are living in environments so degraded by soil erosion, salinization, falling groundwater levels, drought, or simply over-population, that self-sufficiency is out of reach.

  6. Bobby B.

    As an astute observer of the environmental movement for two decades, it is worth noting that the idea of converting food into fuel to bring down those evil oil companies was first pushed by the greens. The “ethanol industry” is a creation of environmental movement.

  7. grrlfriday

    Bobby B.

    Yeah, but they always take our WORST ideas. 90% of the Green ideas would improve things astronomically if they were implemented. In the end the only ones that get adopted are the ones you can twist into being profitable for the big multinationals — in this case, Monsanto, Cargill, etc. Funny how that works.

    The really simple, useful stuff nobody wants to deal with. The bottom line is, if there are megabucks to be made, someone will jump right on it. Otherwise, they’d just as soon let us rot.

  8. Larry

    aint no climate change, aint no global warming, you are just a bunch of dirty reactionary liars looking for something to whine about. boo hoo hoo hoo, who said this world was going to be a fair deal anyhow? get real!!! also get lost!!!!

  9. T.Tutt

    I wonder what percentage of the grain in the US is being used to make:
    Beer (and other alcoholic beverages) and junk food? Oh, and the primary ingredient in most Pet foods is corn, but simply as a filler. all it does is increase the volume of pet poop.

    I like beer as much as the next guy, but surely when compared to such lofty causes as feeding the hungry, beer would have to take a distant second. Perhaps they should be banned, and our pets be fed more natural foods, so that the Hungry can be fed?

  10. T.Tutt

    lets look at the big picture here:
    we have finite space in which to operate.
    In that space we need at the very least room to live and room to grow food. If the room for growing food is finite and the population growth is virtually infinite, then what we use grain for is irrelevant. Even if the entire human race were to move its buildings and dwellings underground so that the natural landscape could be turned to use for growing food etc, there is still an imbalance. eventually the human race will outgrow its ability to feed itself in the space that it has available.

    the only solutions are: massive population control, or find other places to live. Mr. Obama just canned the Moon Project which would be a necessary step in any attempt to go farther. what does that leave us?

  11. Bobby B.

    @ grrlfriday:

    Not really. As Jonah Goldberg has said, businesses are opportunistic and keep one finger in the wind to measure the pulse of public sentiment; as do politicians. Now that much of the foundation for the global warming argument has been proven “shaky” at best (via revelations of EA-RCU, NOAA, NASA, & IPCC data and peer-review manipulations), will the press do its job and flood the public with stories of the greatest scientific hoax in history? It really should be a bigger story than anything going on with Brad and Angelina. Will politicians reverse course on measures that aren’t necessary, such as Henry Waxman’s freedom squasing cap-and-trade bill? Will Al Gore take up a new cause to continue enjoying his lavish, jet-setting lifestyle? Probably not. And the reason is simple: MONEY. Too many have too much invested in global warming alarmism. Here’s a little opinion piece by economist Walter E. Williams that hits some of the highpoints:


    Now, I think Williams’ statements about the auto industry are incorrect. That industry has played to public sentiment too many times to count. The electric car and fuel efficiency become the hot topics every time the price of oil spikes, but as soon as things calm down they are ready to meet our demand for trucks and SUV’s. Plus, now that the bail-out precedent has been set, they really aren’t taking financial risks to develop “environmentally friendly” automobiles.

  12. CaptainBaconMan

    You couldn’t be more wrong. The corn used to create ethanol and feed cattle and other various animals is indigestible to humans. Nobody can eat the corn so how is it causing hunger? The US cranks out tons and tons of corn to be used as chemicals and animal feed that not a single human could eat directly. Corn is in EVERYTHING.

  13. Bobby B.


    Good points! There is a distinction between feed/ethanol grade corn and fit for human consumption grade corn. However, when you make this point with most greens they will tell you that they are talking about acreage and resources more than crops. It’s the how much land, water, fertilizer, fuel, etc. is being designated to non-food versus food production argument.

  14. Uncle B

    Americans over-look the Euro-Diesel, a ful 40% more efficient than the gasoline engines he loves! Want to reduce foreign oil bills? Switch to Euro-diesel engines a snd save a full 40% of your money. Yankee Doodle has his head up his ass on this one! Burning corn in gasoline engines is also folly – they get poorer mileage that way, cancelling out any gains. Ethanol specific engines, reunning on pure Ethanol far outperform andy gasoline mix engines. We dilute good gasoline with ethanol anyway? How cum?

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