In an environmentally conscious environment like UCSB, the issue of global warming seems front and center among the problems afflicting the world today. American politicians, especially the three presidential contenders, have grasped the fact that the onus for resolving the problems caused by industrialization falls on our shoulders. Writers like Thomas Friedman have attempted to explain the positive correlation between solving our energy crisis and American foreign policy in the Middle East. By curbing our dependence on foreign oil, so the argument goes, America can cripple the economies of Middle Eastern countries supporting radical Islamic extremists. Suggestions for doing this usually revolve around some source of alternative energy – of which ethanol is the most prevalent and popular.
Recent studies show, however, that ethanol is not all it’s hyped up to be. It is certainly much cleaner than gasoline, and widely adopting it would free America from its reliance on foreign oil. However, studies show every gallon of ethanol produced in a manufacturing plant requires 2/5 of a gallon of fuel. On top of that, there is the energy required to produce the corn itself. And the kicker: as demand for corn-based ethanol rises, more countries will replace rainforests and underdeveloped land with farms, which would be devastating for the environment. Rainforests help keep our air clean. All these facts are widely reported in the news. What is not reported is the greater effect the ethanol boom would have on starvation throughout the world.
Eight hundred million people worldwide are underweight. The vast majority of those people are malnourished, often to the point of starvation. That number pales in comparison, however, to the 1.3 billion people worldwide who are overweight. Corn is ubiquitous in supermarket aisles in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, usually in packaged foods. These foods that are so pervasive in American supermarkets are becoming commonplace abroad as well. Many foreign countries, especially third-world countries, are beginning to develop chronic degenerative diseases once unique to America.
Much of this can be attributed to globalization – often derided as the cause for the loss of blue-collar American jobs. While globalization is certainly a boon to transnational corporations, it also benefits underprivileged people in foreign countries, who now have a greater chance to prove their value to society in an increasingly merit-based global economy. The flip side is more people adopt Western eating and exercise habits, which have made 30 percent of our country obese.
Corn is at the center of this ostensible paradox. How can so many people be obese, yet so many others still are hungry? The next American president is confronted with a moral dilemma. Supporting ethanol production might end our dependence on foreign oil and help protect the country from radical extremism, but at the same time, it has two potentially devastating consequences. With the looming possibility that ethanol might harm the environment more than it would benefit, Congress needs to reassess its stance on the commodity. Every gallon of corn diverted to ethanol is less corn for food production. As an LA Times editorial recently said, “The astonishing callousness of burning millions of bushels of grain in gas tanks even as global starvation worsens has apparently never occurred to Congress, the Bush administration or the remaining presidential candidates.”
The flat world we live in must be used to our advantage. Supporting the creation of sustainable and organic farms across the world would promote a healthy diet not composed of packaged food, decrease the amount of people who lead sedentary lifestyles and clean the environment all at the same time. The promulgation of sedentary lifestyles revolving around the computer has decreased caloric requirements, while caloric intake continues to rise. Ironically enough, many obese people are severely malnourished because the food they consume is so devoid of nutrients. If incentives were given to spur the production of organic produce and deterrents were put in place to limit packaged foods, the benefits would be exponential. The fact is, the world produces enough food to meet the needs of every living person, but the distribution and quality are terrible. We must be aware of this fact as a future world revolving around ethanol looms ominously.