No corn for oil: the politics of tortillas and ethanol

Snip from

Many people, including scientists and some big companies believe that we are running out of oil. What oil there is, is located mostly in very hostile environments. One possible alternative to oil is ethanol. Lately, there has been a high demand for ethanol. Even U.S. President George W. Bush said "We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol…" Ethanol is primarily made out of corn. The more demand there is for ethanol, the more expensive corn becomes. But ethanol is not the only product made out of corn. So are corn tortillas. Over the last six months, the price of corn meal for tortillas in Mexico has doubled. Most Mexicans rely on corn tortillas to keep from going hungry. Entonces: many Mexican families are now worried about going hungry because we may be running out of oil.

Link to video and blog post. (thanks, Jose Marquez)

Reader comments: Who knew corn was such a hot topic? Many of you weighed in with thoughtful comments or criticisms on the math and the logic in this piece, and your words follow after the jump…

Scott Sanders says,

Tortillas are just the start!

1. NY Times had an editorial (!) on rising corn prices on Monday: Link.

2. Nearly every packaged food product contains corn syrup, and numerous food manufacturers have begun pushing through price increases due to the increased cost of sweetener. (I work for a consumer goods sales agency, aka food broker, and have seen this first hand.)

3. My family owns a syrup manufacturing business (Bosco Chocolate Syrup is our brand) and I'm quite concerned that we may not be able to push through all of the price increases to our supermarket customers since their shoppers are used to buying syrups at the low prices they've always known.

Tom Radcliffe says,

There's something funny with the Mexican corn story linked on boingboing.

Corn prices have fluxuated in the $2 – $3 per 35.239 l (a unit of volume for some reason called a "bushel") for decades (I've attached a graph of Texas corn spot prices culled from a truly horrible speadsheet available at: Link). These data are consistent with those from other sources, including the USDA.

Mexicans were hit hard by their currency devaluation in the mid-90's, and also by a sudden spike in the price of corn in 1996 that lasted about six months. Mexican farmers were also hit hard by heavily subsidized corn imports from the U.S. after joining NAFTA.

Here's a link on the crisis in 1996 due to high corn prices that were not expected to fall until 2000: Link.

And here's a link on the crisis in 2003 due to low corn prices: Link

As it happens, I think using corn to produce ethanol is stupid–the energy balance doesn't make sense and algal biodeisel (Link) is a far more promising bio-fuel with a vastly higher conversion efficiency from sunlight to usable liquid hydrocarbons.
But it seems implausible that the price of corn for human consumption would be so strongly affected by a relatively small percentage increase in demand for the feed-corn that is used for ethanol production.

Craig Brozefsky says,

Ethanol is made from feed corn, and tortillas from white corn, so I
think the causal link between ethanol demand and tortilla price is
incorrect. The mexian Finance Minister insinuated that there was a
link, but President Calderon has said that ethanol demand does not
explain the rise in prices.

The only "link" would be if farmer's were producing less white corn in
order to produce feed corn for ethanol production. That is a tenuous
assertion at best.

Jim says,

There was a great post about corn as fuel vs corn as food on grist. this conversation the writer had with a supermarket butcher is great (and also a sad sign of how far we have to go):

Me: Hi, do you have any grass-fed beef?

Butcher: Hmm, grass-fed? I don't think you can feed grass to cows.

Me: Well, they're ruminant animals, so I think that's what they're supposed to eat.

Butcher: [sympathetic-but-authoritative head shake] I don't think so. They need vitamins and minerals and stuff.



I'm not disagreeing with the overall argument (though I'm not sure it would stand up to logical analysis), the voiceover says "Over the last six months, the price of corn meal for tortillas in Mexico has doubled." However, the graph makes it look more like it's increased a hundred-fold. Ah, the danger of graph-as-signifier with nary a number in sight.

Sean Fitzpatrick says,

The ethanol issue is very complex, as is the issue of corn prices. However, many commentators always blame the USA for the price of corn, no matter if the price is high or low. Just a few years ago, the US was criticized for cheap corn in Mexico. Your readers might be interested in this report:

"Cheap American corn flooding the Mexican market…The report said the price of Mexican corn has fallen more than 70% since Nafta took effect…"


Charles Lai says,

Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, enlightened me on the oil dependency of our industrialized agriculture. Here's a telling quote from his blog post regarding ethanol and corn: Link.

"The way we grow corn in this country consumes tremendous quantities of fossil fuel. Corn receives more synthetic fertilizer than any other crop, and that fertilizer is made from fossil fuels – mostly natural gas. Corn also receives more pesticide than any other crop, and most of that pesticide is made from petroleum. To plow or disc the cornfields, plant the seed, spray the corn and harvest it takes large amounts of diesel fuel, and to dry the corn after harvest requires natural gas. So by the time your "green" raw material arrives at the ethanol plant, it is already drenched in fossil fuel. Every bushel of corn grown in America has consumed the equivalent of between a third and a half gallon of gasoline."

So it's not only how you get around, but also what you eat which affects our oil dependency.