Fidel Attacks Biofuels—He's Got a Point

|

I must have been otherwise occupied this past May Day, so I missed Comrade Fidel's interesting article in Granma that condemned the conversion of corn into ethanol to run cars. Cuba's Maximum Leader asked from his hospital bed:

What will happen when hundreds of millions of tons of corn are redirected towards the production of biofuel?  And I rather not mention the amounts of wheat, millet, oats, barley, sorghum and other cereals that industrialized countries will use as a source of fuel for its engines.

Castro answered his own question in an earlier article:

More than three billion people in the world are being condemend to a premature death from hunger and thirst. It is not an exaggeration; this is rather a conservative figure. I have meditated for quite a long time on that after the meeting held by President Bush with the US automakers.

The sinister idea of turning foodstuffs into fuel was definitely established as the economic strategy of the US foreign policy….

Actually El Jefe Cubano is on to something. As I pointed out in my "Moonshine Mirage" column a year ago:

…it would take the country's entire corn crop to produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol, an amount equal to about one-fifth of the gasoline Americans currently burn each year. This would also leave no corn for food and some residues for feed. Burning food for fuel raises some interesting moral questions in world in which 800 million people are still malnourished.

Corn prices have doubled in the past 3 years and are already boosting food prices in the U.S. and tortilla prices in Mexico. 

NEXT: Get Your Groove on with Jimmy Wales

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. What will happen when hundreds of millions of tons of corn are redirected towards the production of biofuel?

    Pot growers around the world will turn their hydroponic farms to producing corn instead of dope in order to cash in on the sweet, sweet biofuel money.

    Fidel, the history of economics shows that the more demand there is for something, the more people try to produce it. The invention of bourbon didn’t deplete world-wide corn stores because of increased demand for drinkable maize. Neither will biofuels.

  2. The answer, of course, is big, huge stocks of robust, genetically modified corn!
    Oops, the left doesn’t like that. Never the fuck mind.

  3. What will happen when hundreds of millions of tons of corn are redirected towards the production of biofuel?

    It will mark the end of the Wesson World.

  4. Castro’s objection couldn’t POSSIBLY be based on his country’s dependence on Hugo Chavez’s oil money.

  5. No, no, Fidel is a big investor in the Soylent Corporation’s new product, Soylent Oil.

  6. Abdul — you’ve got your eye on the real threat posed by higher demand for corn… the impact on bourbon!

    And it’s touching to see Fidel get emotional about premature death.

  7. Pot growers around the world will turn their hydroponic farms to producing corn instead of dope in order to cash in on the sweet, sweet biofuel money.

    Didn’t Willie, or Woody or one of those guys have some “info” that pot was a great fuel too?

  8. This idea might sound radical, but how about farmers produce a crop and sell it to the highest bidder. Leave price control and government regulation the hell out of it.

  9. Pat, when Hugo, er, Hillary is in charge, she will set you straight on what teh free market is.

  10. Corn is a pathetic basis for ethanol extraction in the first place. Real ethanol generation uses sugarcane. Was there ever much doubt that this is all just an agricultural subsidy in disguise?

  11. On the bright side, every corn kernel used for biofuels is one less kernel used for HFCS.

    For the children.

  12. Corn is a pathetic basis for ethanol extraction in the first place. Real ethanol generation uses sugarcane. Was there ever much doubt that this is all just an agricultural subsidy in disguise?

    Not a bit. Perhaps someone should point this sugarcane theory out to Fidel and he can stop whining?

    Oh, my bad, he would have to actually use some of his own resources to trade for what his festering little island utopia needs.

  13. Good point. Will anybody starve for lack of sugarcane?

  14. “…it would take the country’s entire corn crop to produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol, an amount equal to about one-fifth of the gasoline Americans currently burn each year.”

    Theoretically, people in other countries might also grow corn, as well as other crops that are even more suitable for biofuel production. People who can’t afford energy hikes may substitute away–move closer to work, etc. Quantity demanded can fall…blah, blah, blah.

    And sure, crop prices may rise to meet demand, but cryin’ about that–isn’t that a bit like cryin’ for the ol’ buggy whip manufacturer?

    Fluctuations in food prices are nothing new.

  15. thoreau,

    I smell the sickly sweet odor of Big Honey in all of this. Corn will be gone–no more HFCS–but sugar will be gone, too, as it is an even more effective source of biofuel. What sweeteners will remain?

  16. I say we lift the Cuban embargo and offer to buy Castro’s sugarcane for biofuel in a cunning geopolitical manouver to pit Castro against Chavez

  17. I smell the sickly sweet odor of Big Honey in all of this.

    Remember that bees are dying off everywhere.

    So, the real culprit must be some lab that’s building GM bees to tolerate pollens from GM plants to provide pharmaceutical grade honey that requires FDA approval before you can put it into your Earl Grey.

  18. “It will mark the end of the Wesson World.”

    Fantastic, MikeP, even if no one else thinks so.

  19. “Corn prices have doubled in the past 3 years and are already boosting food prices in the U.S. and tortilla prices in Mexico.”

    Let’s not make like this whole new “markets” idea is yet to be tested against rising food prices.

  20. Problem is that the FDA will probably demand that pharmaceutical grade honey be designated as a Schedule I food sweetener- one that has no currently accepted nutritional value in the United States.

  21. “Fantastic, MikeP, even if no one else thinks so.”

    I had no idea that “fantastic” meant “humorous equivalent of an ice cream headache.”

  22. Problem is that the FDA will probably demand that pharmaceutical grade honey be designated as a Schedule I food sweetener . . .

    So making hash brownies with honey will get you into double trouble.

  23. Energy prices are notoriously volatile; I don’t know why – I’m sure someone will fill me in. I worry that tying the means of energy production, that is arable land, to the means of food production is going to make food prices equally volatile. Meh, maybe not.

  24. Ken Shultz, you said

    And sure, crop prices may rise to meet demand, but cryin’ about that–isn’t that a bit like cryin’ for the ol’ buggy whip manufacturer?

    You ignore the fact that not one lousy pint of corn based ethanol fuel would be produced if it were not for government mandates and subisides.

    Nobody would be crying for the buggy whip makers if they got mandates and subsidies requiring each automobile driver to buy at least 15 buggy whips a year.

  25. That ice cream headache comes from a comment on a Peak Oil thread some two years ago…

    Peak Oil is so last week…

    I predict that biodiesel will replace gasoline at $4 a gallon. In fact, as petroleum production costs rise past that price, there will be a large but painless shift in the developed and developing world to vegetable-derived transportation fuel.

    But in the undeveloped world disaster awaits…. As the hungry industries demand more and more plant oil, it actually outcompetes food crops on lands in the undeveloped world. The western world, China, and India push more and more people from their farms, increasing displacement and potential famine throughout the nonindustrial nations.

    In 2016 Peak Vegetable Oil arrives when a man named Morris leads a transnational rebellion against the vegetable oil interests. He organizes the vegetable oil producing nations into VOPEC and extracts huge price concessions from the industrialized world. Worldwide depression follows. Oh, and all the economic laws you ever knew anything about fail, yadda, yadda, yadda.

    “Peak Vegetable Oil” is not snappy enough. I will call my theory “Collapse of the Wesson World”.

    Can I be on Fresh Air now, or do I have to write a book first?

  26. I wonder when the last time the agricultural production capacity of the world was less than the world demand. It’s not that we couldn’t produce enough food for all those starving people. It’s that they can’t afford to pay for the food’s production (and that we can’t afford to pay for it for them). Using corn or any other crop for ethanol doesn’t change that fact.

    It doesn’t make motor fuel from ethanol any better, but it’s certainly a poor argument against it.

  27. “You ignore the fact that not one lousy pint of corn based ethanol fuel would be produced if it were not for government mandates and subisides.”

    I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, but your point is well taken.

    …but if that was the point being made above, it was only in a roundabout way. The point being made above seemed to be about the moral implications of using biofuels and markets–not the downsides of subsidies.

  28. I think biofuel will end up helping to feed people in the third world, rather than starve them. Food aid and cheap US imports are one of the reasons that domestic farmers in the Third World can’t compete in the market. With higher prices of imported food, and less food aid given out for free, local farmers will be able to sell to their countrymen for a profit for a change.

  29. Castro might do better growing Palm OIl on his tropical island. Biodiesel is better than ethanol. Cleaner and with better energy density, and probably cheaper to make)

    And when the real details are explained to consumers, they don’t want ethanol, they do want plug in hybrids.

    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/editors/17605/

  30. Brazil grows more than enough sugar that can be converted into ethanol without infringing upon anyone’s food supply.

    Of course, no one wants to eliminate the huge tarriff on foreign sugar, so yeah, corn ethanol is a subsidy in disguise.

  31. “With higher prices of imported food, and less food aid given out for free, local farmers will be able to sell to their countrymen for a profit for a change.”

    Unless they’re cashing in on the fuel demand themselves. Didn’t we just sign a deal with Brazil to buy their corn ethanol?

  32. I predict this is a tempest in a teapot–ethanol can be made out of a host of things–we’re just using corn right now because we have a lot of it, it’s easily gathered, and the production plants easily fit in to the present system.

    Making ethanol from corn is, however, bloody inefficient. Get rid of the tariffs and it wouldn’t last long.

    Biodiesel forever! (And also, if you want to support biodiesel, eat meat!)

  33. Strawberry Diesel Forever.


  34. Making ethanol from corn is, however, bloody inefficient. Get rid of the tariffs and it wouldn’t last long. ”

    As long as Iowa is the first state in which presidential caucuses are held, don’t hold your breath. Even supposedly anti-pork John McCain changed his mind this time around and has become a corn ethanol pimp.

  35. “Burning food for fuel raises some interesting moral questions in world in which 800 million people are still malnourished.”

    From

    Science 18 May 2007:
    Vol. 316. no. 5827, pp. 996 – 997
    Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science
    Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg

    “When faced with this kind of asserted information, one can occasionally evaluate its truth directly. But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims about the merits of string theory, the role of mercury in the etiology of autism, or the existence of repressed memories. So rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim’s source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it.

    In an illustrative recent study, participants were asked their opinion about a social welfare policy that was described as being endorsed by either Democrats or Republicans. Although the participants sincerely believed that their responses were based on the objective merits of the policy, the major determinant of what they thought of the policy was, in fact, whether or not their favored political party was said to endorse it (27). Additionally, many of the specific moral intuitions held by members of a society appear to be the consequence, not of personal moral contemplation, but of deference to the views of the community (28).”

    Now take a step back and ask how this is relevent to RB’s reporting on science.

  36. Does anybody know how much arable land has been taken out of food production in the U.S. in the past 50 years as agriculture has become more mechanized? Is it just a teensy bit possible that some of that land could be put back into production in response to a rapid rise in grain prices?

  37. But where will the m??se roam?

  38. “Does anybody know how much arable land has been taken out of food production in the U.S. in the past 50 years as agriculture has become more mechanized? Is it just a teensy bit possible that some of that land could be put back into production in response to a rapid rise in grain prices?”

    Bailey knows about that. He knows that yields could improve as well. He knows that there are better biofuel crops than corn, and he knows we can import biofuel crops as well. I bet he knows about the possibility of using algae. I bet he knows about lots more too…

    I bet he knows about battery technology–I bet he knows all this stuff better than the rest of us.

    …And yet he still quotes Fidel Castro!

    I think he’s just makin’ a point about unintended consequences. …a point that even Castro–even Castro!–gets.

    But I could be wrong.

  39. Carbohydrate fuels is a perfect example of a second hander industry. If there was no gov’ment incentive, no one, and I mean no swinging dick would be making ethanol as a substitute for gasoline.

    The fact that you so-called libertarians have fallen for it is because you are faux libertarians as you are employees and think and reason like employees.

    STFU and suck yer latte’s. Nuke, natural gas crude oil, coal. Anything elese requires a subsidy or regulation of competition.

    Corn and sugar cane and other plant material is hair farmer pipe dream crap. Castro is old school and since his economy is on the edge, cannot afford to buy into the latest euro-trash faux environmental wet-dream.

  40. James Watts,

    Man, it’s guys like you that make us “libertarians” seem okay to the rest of the world. …Don’t waste that routine on us–go out there and preach the gospel!

    …Yell it in the streets! Scream it from your window! “The Libertarians are all kooks! …I can prove it!”

  41. “Corn prices have doubled in the past 3 years”

    We can exclude them from “core” food prices
    Problem solved!

  42. I smell the sickly sweet odor of Big Honey in all of this. Corn will be gone–no more HFCS–but sugar will be gone, too, as it is an even more effective source of biofuel. What sweeteners will remain?

    I suspect killer bees sticking up the plan.

  43. Ken:

    Sorry, I had no idea you fellers were so serious. I guess all them big iders bouncing off the walls inside head give you some sort of comfort. Turning food into fuel is such a rotten concept, even Castro can see it. Don’t let that stop you from your green weanie wet dream because in theory, it makes such good bidness wid all dem incentives an such.

  44. >>> More than three billion people in the world
    >>> are being condemend to a premature death from
    >>> hunger and thirst.

    What’s the down side?

  45. Making fuel out of foodstuffs is dumb. But I remember reading that it might be possible to make ethanol out of cellulose – agricultural waste which is indigestible to humans. At present this is extremely expensive, but by using genetically engineered bacteria it might become economically viable.

  46. Corn is about the least efficient source for ethanol. (Except for, perhaps, the hot air that comes out of Castro.)

    Biofuels have more potent sources, biodiesel for example can be produced from algae which can be grown at something along the lines of twenty times the density of the crops they’re looking at.

    Ethanol can also be produced by other crops, many of which aren’t used as food crops. Finding legumous sources of ethanol, in particular, would be most beneficial to poorer nations because their nitrogen fixing would reduce fertilizer needs and make them more tolerant of poorer soils.

    Now if only the farm lobby would stop insisting that we use the worst source simply because we happen to produce it… Sure, that’ll happen. I’m predicting an increase in farm subsidies to offset the cost hikes for Corn instead.

  47. A moose once bit my sister

  48. Don’t look at me. I didn’t do it…

  49. A hopefully very potent source for BioDiesel (which incidentally needs something like Ethanol to make).
    http://www.greencarcongress.com/2007/05/researchers_dev.html#more
    Just need lots of Pine Plantations, I think we have those.

  50. The most efficient way to convert carbohydrate of any kind into mechanical energy is to feed it to a horse, ox, etc.

  51. The U.S. isn’t the only country making biofuel – look at Brazil. Fidel is the author of Cuba’s problems. This is another disingenous attack of the U.S.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.