Who Ate My Tortillas? -- The Truth About Food Vs. Fuel

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post.  

For many families in Mexico, the poverty line is an all too familiar tightrope. It's easy to fall off.

Both because of its low cost and regional tradition, tortillas are a staple food in Mexico. During the past year, the price of corn tortillas increased by anywhere from 20% to almost 400% in various regions of Mexico (4). For millions of Mexicans, the rapid and unexpected price increase means starvation.

So, who is to blame for the increasing cost of corn?

Many fingers point to biofuels, especially ethanol, the alcohol fuel predominantly made from corn in the US. Ethanol is generally sold blended into gasoline. It is blended in ratios as low as 5% but recently, there has been a national push for more "E85" or 85% ethanol blended with 15% gasoline. Unlike other biofuels such as butanol or biodiesel, ethanol is derived from the food portion of the crop. As corn prices have skyrocketed, the wisdom of making fuel from food has been put under an increasingly unforgiving microscope.

So how does this "wonder crop" really stack up?

Corn is a low-yielding crop requiring an extraordinary amount of pesticides and fertilizer. The National Corn Growers Association estimates that 597,388 gallons of water are required per year to grow an acre of corn (7). In addition, three to four gallons of water are required to make a single gallon of ethanol, once the crop has been harvested (1). And then there is the pollution. According to a University of Minnesota study, "when you look at the entire life-cycle of ethanol -- from growing to harvest to processing to combustion -- burning E85 (85 percent ethanol) as fuel actually produces more carbon monoxide, volatile organics, particulates, and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen than an energy-equivalent amount of gasoline (2) [...]". However you cut it: ethanol from corn is wasteful. Many claim that corn ethanol is energy negative: that means that for each unit of energy you put into making the fuel, you get only one unit or less back in the final product. (This is not true for other fuels, such as biodiesel from soy, which is energy positive and requires significantly less input.)

The exorbitant amount of pesticides used in corn production has lead to a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen and phosphate-based (read: petroleum-based) pesticides and fertilizers are used to stimulate growth in the corn plants. The compounds that are not absorbed subsequently trickle to neighboring creeks, rivers, and ultimately into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf. Just as fertilizers promote growth in plants, they also promote growth of algae in this region. The algal blooms deplete the oxygen supply, making it impossible for any other plants or species to exist there. In 2005, National Geographic reported that the lifeless span of water in the Gulf of Mexico was almost the size of New Jersey, ranging 5,000 - 8,000-plus square miles (10).

Corn may be environmentally detrimental, but it is difficult to pin the systemic problems in our international markets solely on biofuels. One need only look at the escalating costs of the world's other staple commodities, such as cement, steel, and coffee to reveal that escalating costs are not restricted to corn or corn-based products. By far the largest commodity price increase is not in corn or wheat or soy or housing -- but rather in oil.


Ironically, every step of the ethanol process relies on the very fossil fuel it claims to depart from, from driving tractors to making fertilizers to transporting corn to turning it into fuel. According to Vinod Khosla, former head of Sun Microsystems turned green fuel investor, 75% of the price increase in food is due to the increase in the price of oil.

Due to a complex, globalized commodity chain, food in other countries is also dependent on oil. The more steps and middlemen between a product and the oil that it relies upon, the more expensive the product. This is what happens when Middle Eastern oil fuels U.S. corn production, which supplies the Mexican diet. Thanks to corn overproduction in the states, the U.S. exports more and more corn to its southern neighbor at artificially cheap prices, far below the price that Mexican producers could offer. Mexico now imports over 25% of its corn from the U.S., (12) even though it has the capacity to produce enough corn to fulfill its needs domestically. Thus, a spike in U.S. oil prices takes dinner off of Mexican tables.

Now, shall we begin the food vs. food debate?

The understanding that forces within the food sector are altering corn prices reveals another overlooked point -- corn is in an overwhelming portion of what we eat. Corn feeds not just cows, but poultry and even farmed fish. Further, 55% of sweeteners are corn-based. Based on a study conducted by the Corn Refiners Association, the average grocery store contains 4,000 products that contain corn in some form, not including poultry, dairy, and beef products (3). Corn is even used in paint, paper products, cosmetics, tires, and plastics (9). The makers of the documentary King Corn found out that 55% of the carbon content of their hair is from corn's family of plants (8). Corn subsidies encourage overproduction and ensure the sweet crop is dumped into every possible product.

The overabundance of corn has enhanced our ability to respond to increasing demands for meat. Now that corn prices are up, however, meat producers are feeling the economic pinch. In turn, meat demands also influence corn prices. Demand for crops like corn is rapidly rising as developing nations are consuming increasing quantities of meat, pushing prices up and increasing competition for basic carbohydrates and sugars. Food for thought: it takes 2.6 pounds of corn to produce one pound of beef and 3.6 to produce a pound of pork (11).

The effects of the oil-corn supply chain are heightened in Mexico (and many developing nations). This is because both local and foreign distributors have a near monopoly in the corn market and because the U.S. cost of corn is set by non-Mexican market forces. Two companies in Mexico control 90% of corn flour production, enabling them to set the prices of corn and tortillas (12). Before the corn even reaches the hands of these giant distributors, outside speculators determine the price of corn, much like they do with oil. While foreign countries lack basic foods, thousands of tons of surplus corn sit in grain elevators in the U.S. There is no shortage of corn, but rather a worldwide supply system in a failed state.

From your steak dinner to the sweetener in your soda to the ethanol in your tank, corn is almost as omnipresent in our society as oil. The two commodities are inextricably linked. The scrutiny of corn has exposed larger issues in American infrastructure. But just as starvation and economic crisis cannot be attributed to a single crop, we cannot solve these problems with a single crop or fuel.

Some hope may lie in combining and balancing sustainable energy alternatives. Meanwhile, as climate instability and oil price volatility continue, both food and fuel will get more expensive and further from the reach of many who can no longer walk the line.

Up next: Do biofuels destroy rainforests?

This blog is based on Fields of Fuel, an upcoming documentary on the future of energy.

Food Vs Fuel, A False Debate

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post.


Gas prices have doubled. High food prices have pushed over a hundred million people into starvation. It's snowing in the northwest United States -- in the middle of summer. And a United States president, known for his allegiance to the dark world of oil and for his suspect behavior around the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history, appears to be preparing to go to war with Iran.

This is not the set up for Oliver Stone's new World War III thriller; it is the summer of 2008 -- a year that will likely determine the course of America for generations to come.

Against this volatile backdrop, there is a growing hope that the "green" in America's red, white and blue could yield answers and technologies that can get us out of the climate and energy crises. Depending on one's particular definition of "green," a new group of fuels called "biofuels" have become a personal badge of honor for some and a national disgrace for others. A fervent debate rages over the ecological, economic, and sociological impact of these fuels.

In an effort to simplify the data, the media has clumped these fuels together, calling the entire conglomerate of biologically derived fuels "biofuels." Through a carefully managed flurry of information, the public has been led to believe three vastly generalized myths:

1) Biofuels are all the same;
2) Biofuels are "bad" because they are produced at the expense of food;

oh, and one other thing ,

3) Biofuels are all made from the big bad grain called corn.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

That's because, like biofuels, the truth is a commodity bought and sold on the open market. The recent "untruths" about biofuels are brought to us by the American Petroleum Institute (API), which has given the New York based public relations agency Edelmann the mandate to "better America's perception of petroleum fuels," and the Grocery Marketer's Association of America (GMA), which, according to Iowa Senator Grassley's web site, has also initiated a smear campaign against biofuels. The debate these strange bedfellows manufactured is now commonly known as "Food vs. Fuel."

Much of the "Food vs. Fuel" controversy centers on ethanol, the alcohol fuel that is primarily made from corn in the United States and sugarcane in Brazil. Very little ink or airtime is given to the other biofuels, especially fuels from non-food sources, fuels from waste and fuels from new crops like algae.

In addition to dissuading the public and most policy makers that biofuels could be a viable solution to the energy woes of America, this debate has combined with the soaring price of oil and a lack of government support to decimate much of the U.S. biofuels industry.

Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to dissect the myths surrounding the "Food vs. Fuel" debate, and present you with some cutting-edge information about biofuels. I will also do my best to address the many questions you will pose.

Following is a general outline of the topics I will be covering:

Week 2
Who Ate My Tortillas? -- The Truth About Food vs. Fuel

Week 3
Where's My Orangutan? -- Why Biofuels Don't Kill Monkeys

Week 4
Too Expensive to Meter -- The Exploding Nuclear/Hydrogen Hype

Week 5
Biofuels 101 -- What Dick Cheney Doesn't Want You to Know

Week 6
Biofuels: The Next (and Hopefully We'll Get it Right) Generation

Week 7
Mean Green Fuel Machines -- Algae to the Rescue

Week 8
Bio "Energy" -- Mother Nature Knows Best

Week 9
The Secret to the Energy Universe -- (Finally!)

Week 10
New Series -- "Global Warming Doesn't Exist (So Why is it so Darned Hot ?!)"

Our country is capable of becoming self-sufficient, out of war and out of debt while breathing the fresh air of environmental consciousness and keeping our stomachs full.


2nd Day at the Seattle Film Festival

2nd Day at the Seattle Film Festival. Today we went to Nathan Hall high school and screened the film for 400 students. Their responses were very thoughtful - from who to vote for, to when algae fuel will become available. The 4:30pm screening of 'Fields' was attended by green energy enthusiasts and only a few film-o-philes. People stayed for almost an hour afterwards asking questions and scheming to change the world. No protestors today (I guess they liked the movie). Now onto the directors dinner... 

Seattle Film Festival has PROTESTORS & DANNY GLOVER


Wow guys - this is wild. We're outside the Harvard Exit Theater in Capitol Hill, Seattle, WA and there were some surprises before tonight's screening of 'Fields of Fuel'. The first, and a first for 'Fields', were three protestors with signs that said "BIOFUELS: CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY." Rebecca Harrell, Jim Guy and Michael McComber all spoke to them and really made them welcome, so much so that two of them came to see the film. Second surprise - Danny Glover is in there watching 'Fields of Fuel' now. According to Wikipedia, he is a big supporter of Hugo Chavez. So it will be interesting to see his reaction to the film.

Warm Welcome at Telluride Mountain Film Festival

This past weekend, we were in Telluride, Colorado screening Fields of Fuel! The day began with a biodiesel car parade at 10:30 in the morning with local biodiesel enthusiasts! The parade ushered our presence at the festival in Telluride. We were excited to be in a city that cares so much about the environment. Here are some telling statistics: *In 2003, a bus in the town's fleet was converted to run on 100% biodiesel fuel thanks to local citizens and a $17,500 Colorado Renewable Energy grant. *Telluride's biodiesel bus is the first 100% biodiesel powered public transportation bus in the United States. We completely packed out the theatre at Telluride! With seating capacity of nearly 500, people were standing in the back for an opportunity to see Fields of Fuel. Following the screening, the parade continued to an Ice Cream Social. Everyone was encouraged to walk or take biodiesel transportation to the Town Square and enjoy some ice cream sundaes. What's next for the Biodiesel Revolution? We're heading to Jackson, Wyoming for the Jackson Hole Film Festival!