Where is Harry Chapin when you need him? The popular folk singer (Cat’s in the Cradle), who lost his life in an auto crash 27 years ago, was an indefatigable force of nature against hunger — in this country and around the world.
To hear Harry speak out against the scourge of hunger in a world of plenty was to hear informed passion that was relentless whether on Capitol Hill, at poverty conferences, or at his concerts.
Now the specter of world hunger is looming, with sharply rising basic food prices and unnecessary food shortages sparking food riots in places like Haiti and Egypt. Officials with the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) are alarmed. The WFP has put out an emergency appeal for more funds, saying another 100 million humans have been thrown into the desperate hunger pits.
Harry would have been all over the politicians in Congress and the White House who, with their bellies full, could not muster the empathy to do something.
Directly under Bush and the Congress is the authority to reduce the biggest single factor boosting food prices — reversing the tax-subsidized policy of growing ever more corn to turn into fuel at the expense of huge acreages that used to produce wheat, soy, rice, and other edibles.
Corn ethanol is a multifaceted monstrosity — radiating damage in all directions of the compass. Reducing acreage for edible crops has sparked a surge in the price of bread and other foodstuffs. Congress and Bush continue to mandate larger amounts of subsidized corn ethanol.
Republican Representative Robert W. Goodlatte says: “The mandate basically says [corn] ethanol comes ahead of food on your table, comes ahead of feed for livestock, comes ahead of grains available for export.”
Corn growing farmers are happy with a bushel coming in at $5 to $6 — a record.
A subsidy-laden, once-every-five-years farm bill is winding its way through Congress. The bill keeps the “good-to-fuel” mandates that are expanding corn acreage and contributing to a rise of global food prices.
Of course, more meat diets in China, futures market speculation, higher prices for oil, and some bad weather and poor food reserve planning have also contributed to shortages and higher prices.
But subsidized corn ethanol gets the first prize for policy madness. It not only damages the environment, soaks up the water from mid-west aquifers, scuttles set asides for soil conservation, but its net energy equation qualifies for collective insanity on Capitol Hill. To produce a gallon of ethanol from corn requires almost as much energy (mostly coal burning) as it produces.
Designed to alleviate oil imports, hold down gasoline prices, and diminish greenhouse gases, corn ethanol has flopped on all three scores.
Citing Princeton scholar Tim Searchinger, an early sounder of the alarm of global food shortages and higher prices, Lester Brown and Jonathan Lewis write in the Washington Post “that the net impact of the food-to-fuel push will be an increase in global carbon emissions — and thus a catalyst for climate change.”
Can Congress change course and drop its farm subsidy of corn ethanol this year? Observers say, despite the growing calamities and the real risk of severe malnutrition, even starvation in Africa, Congress will do nothing.
Farm subsidies, once installed, are carved in stone — unless there is enough outcry from food consumers, taxpayers, and environmentalists. They are paying from the pocketbook, from their taxes and health. That should be enough motivation, unless they need to see the distended stomachs of African and Asian children on the forthcoming television news.
Unless we wake up, we will continue to be a country stuck in traffic — in more ways than one.
Don’t rely on the election-year political debates to pay attention to destructive corn ethanol programs. For years I have been speaking out against this boondoggle, while championing the small farmer in America, but no one in positions of Congressional leadership has been listening.
They must be waiting for the situation to get worse before they absorb a fraction of Harry Chapin’s empathy and care.
Ralph Nader, a son of Lebanese immigrants, was born in Winsted, Connecticut on 27 February 1934. He is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. This article originally appeared on his Web site Nader.org on 25 April 2008.