ConsumerismEconomicsFood ShortagesPeak Oil

U.S. Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars While Hunger is on the Rise

by the Earth Policy Institute

The 107 million tons of grain that went to U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total U.S. grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004.

The United States looms large in the world food economy: it is far and away the world’s leading grain exporter, exporting more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined. In a globalized food economy, increased demand for food to fuel American vehicles puts additional pressure on world food supplies.

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive hunger for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The Earth Policy Institute has noted that even if the entire U.S. grain crop were converted to ethanol (leaving no domestic crop to make bread, rice, pasta, or feed the animals from which we get meat, milk, and eggs), it would satisfy at most 18 percent of U.S. automotive fuel needs.

When the growing demand for corn for ethanol helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008, people in low-income grain-importing countries were hit the hardest. The unprecedented spike in food prices drove up the number of hungry people in the world to over 1 billion for the first time in 2009. Though the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has recently brought food prices down from their peak, they still remain well above their long-term average levels.

The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once can feed one person for an entire year. The average income of the owners of the world’s 940 million automobiles is at least ten times larger than that of the world’s 2 billion hungriest people. In the competition between cars and hungry people for the world’s harvest, the car is destined to win.

Continuing to divert more food to fuel, as is now mandated by the U.S. federal government in its Renewable Fuel Standard, will likely only reinforce the disturbing rise in hunger. By subsidizing the production of ethanol, now to the tune of some $6 billion each year, U.S. taxpayers are in effect subsidizing rising food bills at home and around the world.


  1. The answer to world hunger is not the US feeding everyone. Its localized sustainable agriculture produced and consumed locally.

  2. @Isaac, I couldn’t agree more. The last thing hungry poor people need is cheap American grain. It drives down prices in their communities, leaving local farmers unable to compete. Not to mention putting their economies in further debt to larger nations like the U.S.

  3. G’day, Please don’t forget that once the ethanol is made from the corn that the residues are then used as a livestock feed, so to say that it all goes to ethanol is simply not accurate…that said growing corn for ethanol is not the most efficient crop nor is at all efficient for feeding livestock, especially in a confinement operation…strip grazing is another matter…though we are still trying to find a cow with a beak: give it time and the GM cowboys will crack the code though!

    All the best,

    Darren Doherty

  4. With all due respect and compassion for the plight of the Haitians who are eating mud,it probably has more nutritive value than the corn produced in the states.I agree totally with Isaac.Local is the way to go.

  5. @ Nick, I wouldn’t say I totally disagree but I do disagree to a large extend!! In fact, cheap, for them affortable food is not the last but the First thing that poor & hungry people need, simply in order to not starve to death!!!
    Its certainly not a long term solution, but due to all the subventions in form of all kind of foods which are given to many 3rd World countries, the farmers are already unable to compete!!!
    @ Isaac, you are right, localized sustainable agriculture produced and consumed locally, is the long term solution but untill that is reached in all the 3rd World Countries it will still take quite a while… And that is also only possible if local farmers are supported and afterwards subventions stopped, in a way, that causes no further food shortage!!!!
    and Until then, do you recommend to simply cut off the food supply and thereby literally cut off millions of peoples lives?
    And last, @ James; thats simply idiotic to say!!! It says that even if the entire US Grain would be used for fuel, it would cover at most 18% of just the US fuel… Whereas one quarter of that same grain only could satisfy 330 Million people for one whole year!!! I don’t know what more to say…
    I do like the idea of using ethanol as energy in general, since it is a renewable source, but why for gods sake use food, which could and would safe billions of human lives if used efficiently???? Ethanol can be acquired through pretty much any plant…!!! They should rather focus on a more efficient ethanol source, which isnt food!
    Anyway, hoping for good responses…

  6. @Lisa,
    Are you saying you would like a diet that consisted of GM corn? GM corn should only be used for fuel, not food. That being said, all GM food should be banned outright, everywhere, it’s just to dangerous.

  7. Of course there are many issues at play here. Number one is that far too many GM grains are being grown in the first place. Not just in the US but also in Canada. For the record I am 100% against any GM foods or plants or animals or whatever.

    If some cropland is to be turned over to ethanol production then it would likely do far better with hemp or another plant.

    In an ideal scenario, countries that receive food “aid” would brought into an agreement whereby, in say, 3 years they would be weaned off of the food shipments. Of course this would have to go hand in hand with debt forgiveness, removal of the conditions on loans whereby they have to let bigAgro in there to run everything and they would need real aid money that they could use to foster this transition. They would then be in a position once again to feed themselves sustainably at the local level.

  8. @Max Your not understanding how it works, they are not GIVEN cheap grain, they are LOANED cheap grain, and since our grain is subsidized, it’s much cheaper than the grain produced by their own local farmers. Therefore farmers will buy our cheap GM grain, and those who don’t will eventually go out of business, due to their inability to compete with that price point, leaving the people of that country completely dependent on imported food i.e. Haiti. There is a short film called “A Thousand Suns” which explains this process very well.

    And in regards to the comment James made, he is absolutely right. Grain is better left for birds, NOT humans.

  9. Government subsidies and mandates distort markets make it impossible to make rational economic decisions. Our armchair conjecture isn’t worth much until accurate price signals are allowed to inform the market.

  10. On the face of it, it seems rather optimistic about the future of food should we just ban ethanol. However, how much of this grain is in effect zero EROI because of the fossil fuel feedstocks? And so, how much grain will the US really be producing post-peak? We’ve got a problem even with ethanol removed from the equation.

  11. Ed,

    while the general idea underlying EROI considerations is attractive and certainly seems valid, judging from what I’ve seen so far, I get the impression that it very often actually has been done very wrong.

    Do you happen to have a good source that explains how to do EROI analysis properly?

  12. Ethanol produced from corn in the US is nothing but a government subsidy to large agricultural concerns. As a motor fuel ethanol is pretty much a joke anyway. I can get better efficiency with it running a boiler.

    Produce what you need locally and don’t concern yourself with getting cheap grain from the US. 15 years from now there will be no cheap grain from the US anyway. We will barely be able to feed ourselves by then.

  13. Sam,

    The ‘large agricultural concerns’ are taking advantage of the subsidies, but it doesn’t mean others can’t to their profit (e.g. permies).

    Ethanol as a motor fuel is not a joke. It was the fuel of choice before crude oil derivatives, creating sustainable local business for farmers, and was used for example by Japanese fighter planes during WW2. It is cooler burning, can get better mileage because it can handle higher compression ratios and can burn more completely, and doesn’t have the toxic components typically found in oil derivatives. Done properly it doesn’t have all the ecological problems of conventionally grown corn. The process can return nutrients to the soil and sequester carbon.

    David Blume (a permie) has lots of material about it:

  14. Without a doubt the current model of alcohol fuel and food production are innefficient and in my mind comletely unetical.

    The work of permaculturist David Plume ( provides a model for regenerative fuel and food economies.

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