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Where the Streets are Paved in Corn

Word on the street is that alternative fuels are the answer to our country’s dependence on foreign oil. An added bonus is that these alternative fuels may also reduce greenhouse gases – a big thumbs up for the environment- although some say processing of these fuels may hurt, rather than help, the environment. But where do these alternative fuels come from and is there an infinite supply?

Word on the street is that alternative fuels are the answer to our country’s dependence on foreign oil. An added bonus is that these alternative fuels may also reduce greenhouse gases – a big thumbs up for the environment- although some say processing of these fuels may hurt, rather than help, the environment. But where do these alternative fuels come from and is there an infinite supply?

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The truth is that the production of alternative fuels currently eats away at our food crops (although you could be forgiven for thinking we had an endless supply of corn given the way we whittle it away in products as varied as soft drinks and cheese spreads). This is not the case.

What will this mean for food costs as demand for crops such as corn and soybeans (the crops currently used in many alternative fuels) continues to outstrip the supply? It’s economics 101. As demand goes up, so do prices.

Someone must have taken notice of this dilemma because the U.S. Energy Department announced that six grants will be given to support bio-refineries that produce cellulosic ethanol from nonfood crops. So next time you’re wondering where all the wood chips and wheat straw went, you’ll know the answer: cellulosic ethanol.

But that doesn’t solve the entire problem since ethanol doesn’t have as much energy per gallon as gasoline. That is why many companies are still searching for the Holy Grail of renewable energy: the super-crop or wood chip, which will outperform gasoline.

Who will win the race to create the best alternative fuel? Your guess is as good as mine. But one thing is certain: if the renewable fuel mania cuts into our nation’s food supply, those with limited resources, whose food budgets are already constrained by dwindling dollars, will be the ones who will suffer. As Americans demand oil dependency they have to remember one thing: they may get what the wish for. But the price of oil dependency may come at the cost of the dependency of that many more Americans on our already overburdened food stamp programs and soup kitchens.

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Just to clarify: I’m all for alternative fuels if they lower the cost of gasoline, create jobs, and are good for the environment, but we have to remember that there isn’t a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow and finding the right balance between feeding our fuel frenzy and feeding our country (cheaply and healthfully) is key.

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