Ethanol fuel demand has bid up the price of corn. Already the price of tortillas has doubled and sharp rises were felt in the price of animal feed in both Mexico and the United States, according Technology Review.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this year the country is going to use 18 to 20 percent of its total corn crop for the production of ethanol, and by next year that will jump to 25 percent. And that increase, says Marshall Martin, an agriculture economist at Purdue University, "is the main driver behind the price increase for corn."
The jump in corn prices is already affecting the cost of food. The most notable example: in Mexico, which gets much of its corn from the United States, the price of corn tortillas has doubled in the past year, according to press reports, setting off large protest marches in Mexico City. It's almost certain that most of the rise in corn prices is due to the U.S. ethanol policy, says David Victor, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University.
The situation will only get worse, says David Pimentel, a professor in the department of entomology at Cornell University. "We have over a hundred different ethanol plants under construction now, so the situation is going to get desperate," he says. Adding to the worries about corn-related food prices is President Bush's ambitious goal, announced in his last State of the Union address, that the United States will produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2017.
Right after the 2006 Leyte mudslide killed nearly a thousand people it was obvious from the available aerial pictures that many of slopes which had collapsed had been stripped of their natural forest cover and converted to subsistence agriculture. None of this had to do with ethanol, of course. But it did have to do with the lack of job opportunities in the Philippines. The employer of last resort in a Third World country is always the land. When an unemployed man runs out of options, he borrows a shovel and a box of matches and goes out to engage in swidden farming, also known as kaingin. When the Kyoto protocols were first announced, with the intention of controlling the emissions of greenhouse gases, its implications may not have been fully understood by the Environmentalists who designed it. The Kyoto protocol, whatever its positive effects, would also have a negative effect in employment to the extent it dampened economic growth. Less growth. Fewer jobs. More kaingin. More matches and shovels in what is left of the forest. Leyte.
While not an argument against Kyoto per se, it is a reminder that any policy is likely to have both positive and negative effects. The trick, as any policy analyst knows, is to be certain any new policy produces net benefits. That is, that the good points clearly outweigh the bad. This is especially true in environmental policy issues in which enormously complex systems -- the weather, the biosphere and humankind -- all interact in ways that nobody; and certainly not the Environmentalists, understand. In the case of ethanol, the fuel industry will inevitably compete with the food industry to use corn. The resulting price increases may not be permanent where farmers can increase their own corn production. They will plant more corn -- but there will be more cultivation. And in places where the market doesn't work or government distortions make it difficult for farmers to ramp up their production the prices may simply rise. That's not what anyone wanted. But that's the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Michael Crichton tells the story of how the Park Service almost ruined Yellowstone Park by trying to preserve it forever.
Long recognized as a setting of great natural beauty, in 1872 Ulysses Grant set aside Yellowstone as the first formal nature preserve in the world. More than 2 million acres, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. John Muir was pleased when he visited in 1885, noting that under the care of the Department of the Interior, Yellowstone was protected from "the blind, ruthless destruction that is going on in adjoining regions."
What followed was the catastrophe of good intentions. The elk were protected, but soon overgrazed the flora and starved. To keep deer numbers up the wolves were hunted, creating a further imbalance. That didn't work so the wolves were trucked back. But by then the flora which supported the lower food chain had gone and the wolves starved. So they boosted the flora. And soon, the forests, deprived of controlled burning became a virtual tinderbox and when it burned, it burned for days. Environmental attempts to preserve Yellowstone only changed it forever. Crichton tells the story.
But Yellowstone was not preserved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the park service acknowledged that "white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone." What they didn't say was that the park service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting animals for decades, even though that was illegal under the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew better. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.
What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error. But to understand it, we have to go back to the 1890s. Back then it was believed that elk were becoming extinct, and so these animals were fed and encouraged. Over the next few years the numbers of elk in the park exploded. Roosevelt had seen a few thousand animals, and noted they were more numerous than on his last visit.
By 1912, there were 30,000. By 1914, 35,000. Things were going very well. Rainbow trout had also been introduced, and though they crowded out the native cutthroats, nobody really worried. Fishing was great. And bears were increasing in numbers, and moose, and bison. By 1915, Roosevelt realized the elk had become a problem, and urged "scientific management." His advice was ignored. Instead, the park service did everything it could to increase their numbers.
The results were predictable. Antelope and deer began to decline, overgrazing changed the flora, aspen and willows were being eaten heavily and did not regenerate. In an effort to stem the loss of animals, the park rangers began to kill predators, which they did without public knowledge. They eliminated the wolf and cougar and were well on their way to getting rid of the coyote. Then a national scandal broke out; studies showed that it wasn’t predators that were killing the other animals. It was overgrazing from too many elk. The management policy of killing predators had only made things worse.
Meanwhile the environment continued to change. Aspen trees, once plentiful in the park, where virtually destroyed by the enormous herds of hungry elk. With the aspen gone, the beaver had no trees to make dams, so they disappeared. Beaver were essential to the water management of the park; without dams, the meadows dried hard in summer, and still more animals vanished. Situation worsened. It became increasingly inconvenient that all the predators had been killed off by 1930. So in the 1960s, there was a sigh of relief when new sightings by rangers suggested that wolves were returning. There were also persistent rumors that rangers were trucking them in ... Now we come to the 1970s, when bears are starting to be recognized as a growing problem. They used to be considered fun-loving creatures, and their close association with human beings was encouraged within the park ...
And by now we are about ready to reap the rewards of our forty-year policy of fire suppression, Smokey the Bear, all that. The Indians used to burn forest regularly, and lightning causes natural fires every summer. But when these fires are suppressed, the branches that drop to cover the ground make conditions for a very hot, low fire that sterilizes the soil. And in 1988, Yellowstone burned. All in all, 1.2 million acres were scorched, and 800,000 acres, one third of the park, burned. Then, having killed the wolves, and having tried to sneak them back in, the park service officially brought the wolves back, and the local ranchers screamed. And on, and on.
Crichton observes that once you start managing complex events you have to keep managing them. In for the dime, in for the dollar. The idea that man can give complex systems a small nudge and then leave them to serenely sail on their way while we enjoy lobsters and chardonnay on the ridge-top is fantasy. The genesis of the 'small nudge, sit back fantasy' as Crichton noted, was the academic fiction that Native Americans had left the land alone. In fact, they knew what today's environmentalists would prefer to forget. Once you start the hill of marbles rolling the trick is to stay one step ahead of events. The Indians worked at intrusion 24x7.
As the story unfolds, it becomes impossible to overlook the cold truth that when it comes to managing 2.2 million acres of wilderness, nobody since the Indians has had the faintest idea how to do it. And nobody asked the Indians, because the Indians managed the land very intrusively. The Indians started fires, burned trees and grasses, hunted the large animals, elk and moose, to the edge of extinction. White men refused to follow that practice, and made things worse.
To solve that embarrassment, everybody pretended that the Indians had never altered the landscape. These “pioneer ecologists,” as Steward Udall called them, did not do anything to manipulate the land. But now academic opinion is shifting again, and the wisdom of the Indian land management practices is being discovered anew. Whether we will follow their practices remains to be seen.
So much for ethanol. But readers of this site will by now have realized the parallels that exist between managing nature and managing international conflict. Although we tend to forget it now, the West very intrusively "managed" the Middle East through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Iraq itself, for example, is the political creation of European diplomacy. And so, some might argue, was Israel. After the Second World War, having made these vast changes, further intrusive management was regarded as evil. The West drew back and proceeded to purchase vast quantities of oil from the region, leaving things to the care and feeding of the United Nations in the belief that nothing else would happen now that History was at an End. But we were talking about ethanol and climate change, weren't we?