What if the world had to choose between having corn-based ethanol and chicken? The tradeoff is revealing. Consider the following facts:

  • Americans drove 3 trillion miles in 2010, and in doing so consumed 138.5 billion gallons of finished gasoline fuel. Of that total, 12.8 billion gallons, or 9.2%, were ethanol produced from corn. However, since the energy content of ethanol is lower than that of gasoline, ethanol powered only 6.2% of the miles or 185 billion miles. Gasoline powered the other 2.815 trillion miles.
  • Also in 2010, about 220 billion pounds of live chicken were produced worldwide and those chickens used the amount of corn energy equal to 168 billion miles of automobile travel had the corn been turned into ethanol instead of chicken, according to Dr. Nick Dale of the University of Georgia. In other words, the entire world production of chicken consumed less corn energy than the U.S. ethanol industry.

What if ...   

Let us for a moment imagine that world chicken production was eliminated and that all the corn energy used to produce chickens was instead used to produce ethanol. Americans could then drive another 168 billion miles – an increase of 6%. Alternatively, let us imagine that ethanol production was eliminated and all the corn energy used to produce ethanol was now used for chickens. World chicken production could be increased by 90%.

There will, of course, never be a ban on world chicken production nor on ethanol production. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the mandated production of ethanol for U.S. automobile travel and the subsequent increase in the price of grain creates an ironically targeted de facto chicken ban, one that withholds chicken meat from those who have never ridden in a car, the world’s poorest people.

Who pays for mandated ethanol?  

About 10% of the world’s population own cars. These people are not greatly affected by higher grain and chicken cost; they can pay the increased cost of chicken meat. The other 90% of the world’s population do not own cars. Although most people who do not own cars have ridden in a car, a significant percentage of the world’s population, about 40%, have never or only extremely rarely set foot in a car.

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It is precisely that 40% of the world’s population, the ones who never set foot in a car, who pay the highest price for the U.S. ethanol policy. The ethanol use mandate has the (surely unintended) effect of reducing their consumption of chicken meat to a minuscule amount.

A modest proposal  

A hiatus for a few years in the increase in the production of ethanol (not a ban) with current ethanol plants fully grandfathered and protected would be a wondrous thing for the world’s obligated pedestrians. A pause in the increase in ethanol production and the subsequent moderation in the price of both corn and chickens, would allow for the consumption of a small measure of chicken meat by those who never ride in a car, the world’s poorest consumers.

There is a price for all to pay for U.S.-mandated corn-ethanol production and use. The question is: Who benefits other than the ethanol industry and corn producers?