Is increased biofuel demand in the US causing more poor in Central America to starve?

Richard Perry/The New York Times

A worthy and overlooked story in the NYT by Elizabeth Rosenthal about a new economic riptide hitting Central America, a result of America's changing corn policy. The US is now using 40% of our own corn crop to produce biofuel, and tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which now imports about half of its corn.

"Recent laws in the United States and Europe that mandate the increasing use of biofuel in cars have had far-flung ripple effects, economists say, as land once devoted to growing food for humans is now sometimes more profitably used for churning out vehicle fuel."

Read the rest, and check out Richard Perry's photo slideshow.


  1. The question I want to ask is, “Why is Guatemala importing half of its corn?” I suspect that the real answer isn’t “Because they don’t have enough fertile land to grow their own corn and other food,” but rather “Because this creates more profit for a few very large businesses.” (Or possibly just one very large business. I don’t know.)

    Along with the importation of corn into Mexico and Central America goes the degradation of the availability of heirloom varieties of corn which provide more diversity in the diet, not just in color and flavor, but also in some nutrients.

    I remember when I was a teenager and a friend from Guatemala looked at the corn in our supermarkets in California and said, “You know, only the poor people eat that kind of corn in Guatemala. That’s the worst stuff. What you use for animal feed!” And sure enough, when I traveled to Guatemala the next year, I never once saw American style yellow corn on anyone’s table except in the poorest of poor homes. 

    There is much more to this story than biofuels, of that I’m sure.

    1. Lots of subsidies for agricultural in the US, not so many in Central America, and free trade in between. Recipe for disaster on the side of unsubsidised farmers, as they can’t offer prices as low as the subsidised competition, and so switch to cash crops, or a different career entirely.

      1. Seconded. American agricultural subsidies wreaked havoc, like they were supposed to, and gave American farmers lots of new customers. And after taking away the job of feeding the world from the world’s farmers, this is how that responsibility is handled. Turning a profit by tuning a food subsidy into fuel subsidy… it’s a very unique kind of evil.

  2. Some countries may have to mandate that people stop having huge families until they create enough infrastructure to support the population.  The USA would probably be in a similar situation if every woman of child bearing age had a kid every 9-12 months (until she hit menopause or died in/from child birth/labor)
    Its not as if most of the people want to be in these situations, but they have little choice in the matter. Family planning or even the idea that they can choose to have one or two kids or wait until after they have an education before having children is not an option. Until there are some serious changes made, they will not be able to break the cycle of poverty and over population.

    Also, the people should probably throw out the rich who are starving them for even more profit

    1. 1.  Family size in Guatemala isn’t particularly high.
      2.  In places where family size is high this is usually in response to poverty — more children means more support for the parents when they get old and more free labor in the mean time.
      3.  The folks in Guatemala who DO have large families probably do not have access to education so your advice to wait to have children until after education is kind of pointless.
      4. The USA throws out a ridiculous amount of food.  The USA could support much larger family sizes than it does.
      5.  This has much more to do with free trade agreements and multinational food corporations than it has to do with the average family size in Guatemala.  I suppose it’s really more convenient to blame Guatemalans for having too many kids, huh?

  3. “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” – Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.

    Honestly, I think biofuel is used as a whipping boy, a lot. There are lots of reasons for food shortages, and land use is only one part of it.

    1. Wealthier nations dump a shitload of good food, a recent study suggests it to be 50% =>
    2. I love eating meat, but it’s a sinfully ineffient food source. More than half of the corn (or maize, in the UK and Ireland) produced in the US is used for feeding delicious animals. Look at the US Dept of Agricultures own statistics: Personally I think meat is a good part of a healthy diet, especially kids, but americans in particular eat far more of it that they need to, necessitating this squandering of grains.
    3. In financially uncertain times, finance looks to food commodities as a safe bet. A husk of corn can be bought and sold six times before it makes it to your plate, drastically increasing the price. Here is a random finance article on the phenomenon:

    So yeah, it’s easy for politicians to give out about biofuels, because if they complain about ignorance, gluttony and greed, they’ll offend too many people.

    1. Sure, those are contributing factors but just because corn ethanol isn’t the only problem doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.  Corn ethanol requires more energy input than output and demonstrably uses up a lot of otherwise edible corn (edible for chickens if nothing else).  And energy output is less than energy input — it’s essentially just another subsidy for the US corn industry.

      Seems to me like corn ethanol is low-hanging fruit — it doesn’t have any benefits but has lots of drawbacks and is no doubt at least PART of the problem with high grain prices worldwide.

      1.  You’re right to say that is part of the equation. I suppose what annoys me is the isolation of a single issue, as though the other factors are beyond question. Especially so when the factor being pointed out is at odds with the interests of energy companies, who typically have outrageous sway in politics and the media.

        I don’t know a whole pile about corn ethanol, but if it wasn’t a major use of corn, that doesn’t mean things would automatically get easier for Guatemalans, not that you’re saying it would.

    2. It’s a poor country where many people live marginally.  On Arrakis, when a rich person takes a shower, a poor person dies.  The shower isn’t the proximate cause of the death, but it is a contributory one.

      1. Are you hinting that Guatemalans have secret lakes of corn under the ground?

        Thing about Guatemala, it’s not short on arable land. Like a lot of under-developed nations, it could feed itself, but it’s more profitable for landowners to ship crops abroad than feed the local peasants. They could have a famine, and you’d still have palm oil and sugar cane as the biggest crops, and you’d still have other WTO member-states taking them to court if they tried any form of protectionism.

        “Yaaay capitalism” – Austin Powers

  4. The same country that produces so much corn that it has introduced it into every consumable product, contributing to massive human obesity while driving farmers in Central America out of business because of cheaper prices, now doesn’t have enough corn to support the US Food Industry and the US Publics’ demand for alternative fuels?  Can 40% be removed from the US Food Industry?  This sounds like BS to keep us addicted to foreign oil – “Biofuel is bad, it causes starvation….”

    Maybe Fat Rendering facilities can be setup to convert US liposuction fat into biofuel, thus satisfying the Oil, Food and Healthcare industries while keeping Central America fed.

  5. Starve people to fuel the cars. Nice, that’s what green movement turns into once the corporate machine gets involved.
    Or maybe that’s the point? Humans being the no1 source of pollution on the planet… Strike the problem at its root.

    1. My suspicion is that corn ethanol is pretty similar to clean coal — an industry marketing campaign aimed at people who are concerned about the environment but not concerned enough to actually research the technology in question.

      1. So it’s either they’re ignorant (aka stupid) or they’re evil… Take your pick, but I’ve never bought the so-called stupidity defense, especially from people who have quite enough money to buy (or rent) any number of genius brains if they happen to be lacking in that department themselves.

        1. Ignorance and stupidity very obviously ain’t the same thing.  I don’t think either marketing campaign actually worked — I’ve never heard anyone in a conversation about environmentalism honestly suggest corn ethanol makes good ecological sense.

          I don’t think it’s very productive to blame people for being incurious and scientifically illiterate.  Our culture and especially our educational system explicitly discourage curiosity and scientific literacy. Certainly declaring people are “evil” because they don’t live up to your exacting standards is a very ineffective way to bring people around to your way of thinking or to change habits.

          1. Sorry for possible misunderstanding, but my “stupid or evil?” argument was aimed at policy makers rather than the average concerned Joe.
            The history is rife with evil and frightfully intelligent people who knew exactly what they were doing and why whilst hiding behind the mask of ignorance or benevolent… simple-mindedness.
            Sorry for bringing up the “Hitler card” but he too officially “didn’t know exactly” what was happening to the jews as the result of his “policies.” And even now you’ll find people in Russia who honestly believe Stalin was a good guy surrounded by “evil advisers.” Essentially, he was such a good, simple person “of the people”, he couldn’t possibly imagine the horrors Beria and NKVD were perpetrating.
            … and you don’t have to exactly be a genius in order to predict what is going to happen when you add these two together. a) humanity has a problem feeding itself as it is and b) “let’s burn what food we have as car fuel!”. Not exactly rocket science, now isn’t it?

          2. you’ll find people in Russia who honestly believe Stalin was a good guy surrounded by “evil advisers.”


          3. …and?
            Imo, claiming that starvation due to actually burning food for fuel is a “honest mistake” is as plausible as saying that Stalin couldn’t know what the would be the result of mass forced migration of Ukrainians, for example.

  6. For crying out loud, can you please specify CORN ETHANOL in the title and body of a post about corn ethanol, instead of repeatedly using the blanket term “biofuels”? There are a lot of different biofuels, with many different ecological sustainability pedigrees. As a supplier of biodiesel made from recycled deep fryer oil who has the word “biofuels” in our name, I often have to deal with consumer misconceptions based on lazy writers who lump all biofuels into the same basket, often without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. Boing Boing should know better!

    1. While we’re at it, let’s point out that the corn grown for ethanol is dent corn, which is not considered to be food for humans.

  7. The NY Times notes that according 1 paper “In 2011 corn prices would have been 17% lower if the United States did not subsidize and give incentives for biofuel production with it’s renewable fuel policies.” 

    The subsidies for ethanol expired at the beginning of 2012 The remaining “support” from the US comes from RFS2 which mandates a certain number of units be blending with gasoline. However, this would still take place without RFS because ethanol serves as an octane booster for gasoline, while also trading a discount to gasoline. RFS only supports ethanol production if ethanol is substantially more expensive than gasoline, which hasn’t been the case for a while.
    Also during 2012 many ethanol plants either stopped or cut back production of ethanol due to negative margins. So if people “complain ceaselessly about the high price of corn”, they should be blaming one of the worst droughts in decades, not ethanol. 

    The EPA also looked into this while determining if they should consider waiving standards.

    “EPA’s analysis shows that it is highly unlikely that waiving the RFS volume requirements will have a significant impact on ethanol production or use in the relevant time frame that a waiver could apply (the 2012-2013 corn marketing season) and therefore little or no impact on corn, food, or fuel prices,” EPA said in a summary of its decision.
    Read more:

    Lastly, it’s misleading to state 40% is used for fuel. Although that amount is used in ethanol production there are significant amounts of by products. Approximately 1/3 corn used in ethanol production is returned as high-value feed product (DDGS) which has a higher nutritional value than corn.

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