Food for Fuel?

Through God’s grace, the United States and Canada have been a blessing to the larger world in many ways. The concepts of liberty and justice have shaped not only our own nations but have served as a model for other nations and cultures.

Besides these lofty concepts, North America has also been a blessing to other countries in producing abundant food for its citizens and for a hungry world. We have the enviable reputation of being the bread basket of the world.

When famine stalked Europe and Russia after the First World War, then-presidential candidate Herbert Hoover organized a gigantic effort to feed the starving millions. Criticized for including the Russians in that program, he slammed his fist on the table and shouted: “Twenty million people are starving there, and they shall be fed.” And they were. This is one example of how a caring and righteous action exalts a nation.

One of the great blessings of our nations has been the availability of reasonably priced food. Those living at or below the poverty level could at least minimally provide for the nutritional needs of their children. Even in inflationary times, food prices stayed at a constant low level, with a corresponding minimal level of malnutrition.

The agriculture sector of our economy is the envy of the world. The government guarantees famers a fair return for their work and investment by means of subsidies and support prices. This program rightly guarantees a fair return to the famer and abundant supply of food for its citizens.

Regrettably, America has adopted a new policy called “Food for Fuel.” Billions of bushels of corn have been diverted from the food supply year after year and crushed to extract a combustible liquid (ethanol) in order to feed the thirsty gas tanks of our large vehicles.

Economically this might seem like a great idea.

Economically this might seem like a great idea. But every decision also has a moral and ethical dimension, which should be of primary concern. How does such a decision affect the least among us?

The policy quickly caused waves of dismay in the poverty-stricken burrows of Central and South America and Mexico, as well as in the homes of millions of poverty-stricken families in our own countries. Their grain-based food had spiked in price, and there was less food for hungry children. The news media reported food riots in many cities. As usual, though, the poor were powerless to effect any change.

The world’s population, which stands at 7 billion, can only be efficiently fed through the production and distribution of grains. Meat prices too will continue to rise along with grain prices.

The Food for Fuel policy not only lacks moral justification but is self-defeating. Whatever we save in fuel costs will be spent on higher food and grocery costs. It has also aroused fears that it may trigger a new round of destructive inflation.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek makes this following observation about using corn for fuel: “Corn is a lousy raw material for fuel because producing 10 gallons of ethanol consumes the energy equivalent of about 7 gallons of gasoline and greenhouse reductions are miniscule.” That approaches a zero-sum advantage. So a decision once thought to be economically advantageous might have an opposite effect.

One U.N. official went so far as to call this policy a crime against humanity. A Michigan State University researcher suggested that prime soil should only be used for growing food and less productive soil for growing biofuel grasses that could then be used for the production of ethanol.

This program poses an unwarranted high risk. In the 1930s a 10-year plague of drought and dust devastated large portions of the U.S. Farms, once thriving, were put up for sale, but there were no takers. In 1988 farmers held their collective breath as once again large areas that had produced crops were parched by lack of rain. Now a swath of southern states, particularly Texas, is in the grip of a destructive drought.

Scripture relates at least two severe and long-lasing droughts that took place in the Near East, one lasting seven years and one three and one half years. But those droughts would pale in comparison if the whole breadbasket of North America, which would cause a crisis of unparalleled severity.

Yes, it is imperative that we control fuel and energy costs and become energy independent. To begin with, America has huge reserves of untapped natural gas. Natural gas-powered vehicles have been on the road for some years already. A large dairy in our area has refitted their large fleet of trucks with engines that consume not gasoline or diesel but an alternative fuel. This corporation plans to build stations selling this gas to vehicles with similar engines. A large corporation in South Carolina is powering its entire factory with gas extracted from garbage.

The government could enforce a reasonable speed limit on our roads and highways and enact stricter policies for the manufacture of cars with better fuel economy. These last two examples alone would drastically lower the cost of transportation and would require some sacrifice of all citizens, not just those with the lowest incomes.

In addition we should expand our use of wind, solar, clean coal, and nuclear power. In contrast to the U.S. and Canada, some nations are extracting ethanol not from food stocks but from other materials.

Our Creator has a special concern and affinity for the downtrodden, the hungry, and the powerless, revealed in the Old Testament regulations for the care of the needy. The Savior showed the same concern when he walked among us. The way we treat “the least” among us is a measure of the sincerity of our faith (Matt. 25:40).

May God give our leaders the necessary wisdom to make fair and just decisions in every area of national life.

About the Author

Bernie VanderMolen is a semi-retired famer living near DeMotte, Ind. He is a member of First Christian Reformed Church of DeMotte.

See comments (17)


This author's analysis is pretty much spot on. What he does not emphasize, however, is that the hysteria known as AGW alarmism (global warming/climate change hysteria) is the predominant driver these sorts of political decisions (to shift from food to fuel). When issues become highly politicized, politicians make stupid decisions (sorry, no other word for it), often to appease their consitituents, most of whom who are too often superficially informed at best.

AGW Alarmist strategies have been to create strong political pressure by providing the general public with superficial information, as well as blatant misinformation (eg. Himalayan glaciers) and telling them that "all scientist agreed on this, there is no argument." To the extent those strategies have succeeded, the have produced counter-productive and just plan stupid policies like this.

And that is why the CRCNA, as denomination, via the Banner, should NOT take positions on subjects like climate change. Their doing so simply adds to the numbers of those who are superficially informed but yet highly committed. And that creates political consituencies that bring us these kinds of misguided policies.

These politices may make Al Gore rich and famous -- even get him a Nobel -- but others pay dearly for it. What mystifies me is that the CRCNA, historically characterized by calm, dispassionate thinking, seems to want to get on the Al Gore train.

It seems to me that a more complete analysis would show that our current industrial food system relies on fossil fuels to create the fertilizers and pesticides that support the growth of almost all of our food.
It follows as much as diverting food to support our energy use is just as immoral as organizing a society that uses obscene amounts of the limited resource of fossil fuels primarily for luxury activities. I agree the criticism of Bernie is valid but it needs to be strengthened in the area of our misuse of fossil fuels. And since the steps need reduce our consumption of fossil fuels are the same steps that reduce CO2 emissions, arguments against AGW are in my view irrelevant.
Every time you drive your car to the corner store, you are quite literally taking food off the table of future generations.

"AGW Alarmist strategies have been to create strong political pressure by providing the general public with superficial information, as well as blatant misinformation (eg. Himalayan glaciers) and telling them that "all scientist agreed on this, there is no argument." To the extent those strategies have succeeded, the have produced counter-productive and just plan stupid policies like this."

I think the drive to use corn for fuel in the US is not so much driven by the "Global Warming" people or hysteria but rather by the various lobby groups for the corn producers who see the opportunity to push for yet another way to sell corn beyond its use in foods and as the base for all that high fructose corn syrup. In the case of corn syrup, that product is relatively cheap in the US as compared to corn sugar due to import duties on cane sugar and subsidies on corn production domestically. The high duties on cane sugar was cited as the main reason for the 2002 move of the Holland Michigan Life Savers plant to Montréal, where life savers are made from sugar obtained at half the price or less.

So, I suggest that if you really want to stop corn from being used to produce fuel you lobby government officials to reduce market-distorting import duties from cane sugar and subsidies for growing corn. This would allow valuable farmland to grow whatever was really most profitable. Most likely without subsidies it would not be profitable to grow corn for fuel (or to make high fructose corn sugar for carbonated drinks perhaps). Perhaps the land used to grow corn for fuel would be used to grow some other fuel crop like switchgrass. If that were so and you still disagreed with any subsidies pushing for biofuel use you'd at least have a less complex set of issues and policies to deal with.

So, I agree that one needs to go beyond a superficial examination of an issue if one is to understand it and have a hope of understanding how to truly be stewards of creation. Sometimes I feel though that people on different sides of an issue just choose different small sets of superficial information to throw at each other.

@ Ian Marsman

I'll concede there is rarely if ever a single motivation for any government action in a system as large as the US, but in this case, the primary motivation/cause was not the ag lobby, although I'm sure the ag lobby was pleased.

The move toward significantly increased ethanol content in gasoline came with the passage of the Energy
Independence and Security Act of 2007 (passed under a Republican president ironically). There were two predominant goals, neither one of which was to boost corn profits (although that also happened): (1) to achieve energy independence; (2) to move toward non-fossil fuel use for "green" reasons. Today, the biofuels push comes mostly for reason #2 and by the so-called green agenda (although even some within that movement are starting to question the wisdom of turning corn into fuel).

Take my state for example, Oregon, which prides itself on being super green. It is one of the states that mandates E10, to the consternation of all my small equipment engines. Certain, Oregon doesn't mandate E10 to make midwest corn producers rich, or even for energy independence. It does so because Oregon's legislature tends to be quick to jump on about any green sounding bandwagon that comes along, in order to "fight climate change."

The emotion based certainty about mankind's destruction of creation by using fossil fuels causes lots of groups to do way too much acting before seriously thinking.

My bigger point, in my original point, was that the CRCNA should not follow this foolish suit by taking sides on climate change when it, as an institution, as if it has the competency to meaningfully take a side. When too many institutions do that (e.g., Oregon's legislature and the CRCNA), we increase the pressure on our political system generally to keep acting before seriously thinking, thereby violating that very sensible rule doctors use: 'first, do no harm'.

This is an excellent article. Thanks so much for writing it!

All I would add is that it seems profoundly unethical to subsidize American farmers to grow food for cheap car fuel when people around the world are starving and, undercut by the subsidies, cannot participate in the food growing economy.

The real answer is sustainable development, the move away from fossil fuel over-reliance, and the elimination of agricultural subsidies.

Just a quick note on the climate change misunderstandings that continue to arise in the CRC community. Read the attached report by the IPCC. This is no longer a debate. It's settled science (no matter what the lobbyists try to tell you).

@ Michael

As to the subject of 'climate change', I think it is more accurate to say there is no longer a debate about whether there is a debate, than that there is is no longer a debate. This is VERY unsettled science.

From all appearances, you don't keep up with the subject matter of climate science. your link points to a 2007 IPCC report (its 2012). Yes, pre-ClimateGate and the same IPCC that has since had to retract a number of significant claims (e.g., about the Himalayan glaciers).

These so-called "misunderstandings" don't just "continue to arise in the CRC" -- a goodly number of world class climatologists and world class scientists in related fields suffer from these same "misunderstandings."

"Subsidizing farmers to grow cheap auto fuel... when people are starving..." says Michael. Unfair, says Michael.

First, I have not seen a change in starvation patterns recently. It continues unabated in spite of subsidies, both previously, and today.

Second, a subsidy to farmers is as much a subsidy to food production. It keeps farmers solvent, confident, and able to afford the technology that keeps them efficient, increasing crop production per acre by very significant amounts over the last thirty years. So indirectly it has kept food prices low, at about 10%-20% of disposable income for the average consumer.

Since including a mandate for biofuel, the price of grain has provided a more reasonable return to farmers, which means fewer subsidies are required to farmers. The biofuel industry may receive some subsidies instead.

The increase in prices for grain means that third world farmers can now compete with imported grains, thus increasing their ability and desire to grow grain and make money to provide for their families.

The inclusion of biofuel in the fuel mix aids the supply of fuel, thus keeping the price of fuel down somewhat, which allows more income to be used for food. It also reduces some income to middle east oil producers, thus reducing their ability to wage wars, both internal and external, but this might be somewhat insignificant overall. On the other hand, it is those wars that are usually the direct cause of starvation, not allowing food aid to reach the needy.

Including biofuel as fuel can easily and quickly be reversed if starvation due to supply becomes a significant concern. I don't think biofuel is unethical anymore than feeding hay to horses was 100 years ago. But whether it is wise will need to continue to be evaluated.

Bernie Van Der Molen April 10,2012
God is our sustainer as well as our Creator.One of His marvelous promises is that He will provide food for all of His creaters on this planet, animals as well as humankind.(Ps.136:25).Yet that promise carries a responsibility for His children to distribute that food in a fair and equuitable way,very difficult that may be at times. At one time there may be an excess of food in one part of the world and a deficit in another part. As example, the Chicago Tribune reported there is a deficit of 2.5 million tons of food and cereal in the continent of Africa which will lead to severe malnutrition and inevitable death by starvatio9n of untold hundreds of thousands, many of them children. In North America we are blessed with an excess of food some of which we use for purposes other then for which it was intended. What an unfortunate juxta-position. This calls for an re-examination of our Food for Fuel policy. We should face squarely the question whether it isn't intrinsicaloly wrong to use our Creator's provision of food for His creatures in a way that diverts His purpose such as using Food for Fuel and thereby denying some of our fello9w beings their rightful and essential portions of daily bread? We appreciate the past comments and invite a further dialogue on this subject.

as I read the Banner I see so much "political" writings..I thought this was a church publication..that is what this new "social justice" is you know..all political..why do you fall for that? What about the 501c3 status? cant say anything that may influence politics you know..Christians need to be salt and getting into political matters of what the government could do..something we need to be writing about?? seems to me there is enough "politics" in the church to take care of it all..Let's all do our part to give to good causes that support those who need food..and leave politics to those called into that..which are many Christians!

Bernie, the excess of grain in one region or country compared to the shortage in another country, is part of the reason for international trade. It is not a problem by itself, as long as the countries which are short have a way to buy food grain from those who produce extra.

The question needs to be asked, why are they short of grain? Is it because they do not have enough land? Is it because they have been engaged in wars which prevent production of grain? Is it because they are using antiquated farming methods which only produce one-quarter of the land's potential? Is it because of an unusual drought? Is it because they have become accustomed to food aid which has undermined prices for their native grown grain, and created a commodity power for armies and rebels and governments that is used to keep the screws on the general countryside population?

Knowing and understanding the reasons for food shortage is essential to finding its solution. There were food shortages before grain for biofuel was begun. What makes present day food shortages different?

I also know that as grain prices rise, farmers are more willing to take the risks of additional costs to maximize production. This means better weed control, better disease control, and optimum ferilizer levels. It results in increased production levels, and results in more grain instead of meat production.

I do agree however, that we always need to be looking at grain for fuel policies; I know that livestock producers are upset with it because it increases their feed costs and reduces their profits. But that is also part of the irony, since if grain is not used for fuel, and it is used for livestock instead, then we have not solved the problem of hunger in africa, since africans will not be able to afford meat if they cannot afford grain.

Bernie Van Der Molen April 28 2012

We appreciate your comments John. It is certainly true that every country should continually improve its agricultural production to its maximum. You write one statement that goes to the heart of the problem under discussion---"It is not a problem by itself (shortage of food in one area and excess in another)as long as the countries which are short have a way to buy food grains from those who produce extra.) The difficulty is that due to the Food for Fuel policy the price of grains have doubled and even tripled.For some countries it means they cannot afford the cost of these grains and subsequently a large portion of its population must go on a sub-nutritional or even a starvation diet. Such results raise once again the question----Is it ever morally or ethically right to burn food that a gracious Providence has given to His people for their sustenance?

Bernie, is the grain and fibre used for fuel different in an ethical sense, from the hay and oats we used to use to feed horses and oxen to plow fields or pull a wagon to town? Is it only because now we have other alternatives?

If something is unwise, does that mean it is morally and ethically wrong?

I believe there is an ethical difference between feeding horses which was the indispensible tool used to till the ground for raising food in the 19th century and using grains to feed motors used for transportation and agriculture in the 20th and 21st centuries. The important difference is choice. The 19th century farmers had no choice but to feed the animals used to produce food. In addition animals also have the right to be fed. We in the 21st century have a choice----to trim back on our use of oil through conservation methods and through extensive exploration and use of fuel extracted from the earth and from non-food products.
What distinquishes an action or policy that is merely unwise from an action that is morally indefensible? The answer is Christianity's and even other religions' inspired rule----do your neighbor no harm. Will this Food for Fuel policy hurt our neighbor or even millions of our neighbors? The answer to that question will, I think, be incresingly answered in the coming years as reports of food shortages continue to be reported.

Bernie, I agree that the difference about ethical use of grain for fuel is choice. But the choices are not always simple. There is also a choice about whether to feed grain to animals which are grown for meat. If grain was not fed to animals, then theoretically that grain could be used to feed people directly, which would feed at least twice as many people, compared to feeding them meat. That also is a choice in many ways similar to using grain for fuel.

There are other implications as well. Some land will grow grass but not grain; this grass can be used to feed animals. Some grain and oilseed is unsuitable for human consumption, it could be used for animal feed, or for fuel.

One other statement I have heard repeatedly, is the impact of food aid on the incentive of local farmers in third world countries to produce enough food for their own population. For example, China has increased its food production over the years, and is purchasing or securing land in Africa and other places, to ensure food production for the future. Some african countries on the other hand have not increased food production; they are often accustomed to food aid in poor years, and have little incentive to find ways of increasing their production. The food they produce is often undersold by the low cost of food aid. How do we manage this problem?

Even in North America, grain prices had not increased significantly for almost twenty years, till about four years ago. North American Farmers were expected to produce more and more with less and less real income, and often relied on subsidies to reduce their risks. While salaries of teachers, laborers and others had increased fourfold in the last thirty years, the price of a bushel of grain or a kg of beef had barely changed since 1982. Even today, with biofuel use, the high price of grain is still lower in real terms than it was thirty years ago. (compared to price of homes and vehicles and wages).

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank has been operating since 1983, but foodaid has been given since at least the 1920s. Famines in russia, ethiopia, and other places in the world have been around as long as I can remember, long before grain for fuel programs.

I acknowledge your point about the ethics of grain for fuel, and I even agree that using good food grain for fuel seems strange, but I disagree about simplistic solutions.

John, your comment that grains are more efficient for the feeding of large populations than meat is right on the spot. However,in the pre-Food for Fuel era there was an abundance of both modest priced grain and meat for most of the population who wished to purchase those foods. Now,however,both grain and meat have sharply spiked in price and as a result less of both will be consumed. That may not affect the financial secure consumers very much but it will have a dramatic impact on those whose diet can be classified as barely-nutritional or sub-nutritional.

There is an important difference between using grain for fuel or using it for the production of meat. In the latter case the result is a delicious and nutritious food.

Bernie, it seems in your comment about meat being tasty and nutritious, you are not really thinking of the poor people suffering from famine in the world, who cannot afford our beef no matter how cheap it is.

We may not have to worry too much about food for fuel, if we find ways to use more cheap natural gas for vehicles in the future. This can also help domestic fuel security.
Due to finding natural gas with fracking methods in the USA, the supply has greatly exceeded the demand.