- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008


The food riots in the Caribbean and parts of Africa and Asia in recent weeks would not have happened but for a confluence of pressures on food supply that sent prices spiraling upward and inventories plummeting. Of the four most immediate pressures, two are out of U.S. control. One is increased food and energy demand in Asia, which the United States should not want to see stopped in any event; the other is the adverse effect of a difficult year in climate and harvests, such as Australia’s drought. There is not much for Congress or President Bush to do about either immediately. But the two remaining factors are bioenergy (especially ethanol) and unneeded largesse for American agriculture. They are within the power of the United States to address — and not by merely sending more American tax dollars to other lands.

The impact on the world food market of the rise in ethanol production in the United States in the last few years is a classic case of the unintended consequences of poorly conceived public policy. Last year, Congress mandated a five-fold increase in the use of biofuels. Currently, a fifth of the U.S. corn crop is converted into fuel. Our legislative solons failed to realize that, on the margin, the corn used to make subsidized ethanol matters greatly in the global food market. Using tax dollars for U.S. subsidies is bad enough; it’s all the worse when these subsidies turn out to exacerbate food shortages in developing countries. We hope that “global warmists” and ethanol pushers are attuned to the irony. The costs of their cutting-edge environmental and energy policies are being footed by Americans and by those in developing countries who can least afford them. Perhaps now global-warming alarmists will begin warming to nuclear energy.

American agricultural subsidies are another contributing factor. U.S. subsidies to cotton, rice, corn, wheat and soybean producers — we’re not forgetting European and Japanese subsidies — encourage overproduction as they lower the price at which American producers compete on the global marketplace. The disincentive to developing-world agriculture is significant. The unfairness and waste of these subsidies are well-publicized; they still must be lifted.

Global food prices have increased 83 percent over the last three years. If the U.S. economic outlook continues to deteriorate, the global economy will also suffer. Expect greater evidence that poorly conceived policies need to be jettisoned.

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