For every 10 ears of corn that are grown in the United States today, only 2 are consumed directly by humans as food. The remaining 8 are used in almost equal shares for animal feed and for ethanol. And, for the 12 months from August 2011 to 2012, the U.S. biofuels industry used more corn for fuel than domestic farmers did for livestock feed – a first for the industry. This significant milestone in the shifting balance between crops for food versus fuel shows the impact of government subsidies for the biofuels industry. And, it could represent a tipping point in the conflict between food and fuel demand in the future.

Over the past year, U.S. farmers used 5 billion bushels of corn for animal feed and residual demand. During the time timeframe, the nation used more than 5.05 billion bushels of corn to fill its gas tanks. And, while some of the corn used to produce these biofuels will be returned to the food supply (as animal feed and corn oil), a large proportion of this corn will be solely dedicated to our gas tanks.

According to Rabobank’s head of agricultural research, Luke Chandler, this shift in the balance between food and fuel could be the tipping point in world grain markets. China, once able to supply its internal corn demand, currently expects to import (from the U.S.) a few million tons of corn next year. This will likely place additional stress on the United States corn industry, as it will introduce another source of demand (and corresponding market pressures) for the nation’s corn harvests.

According to Steven Rattner, former counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury and lead auto advisor for the Obama Administration, ethanol is a prime “example of government policy run amok.” In his June 2011 Op-Ed in the New York Times, Mr. Rattner stated that:

“Eating up just a tenth of the corn crop as recently as 2004, ethanol was turbocharged by legislation in 2005 and 2007 that set specific requirements for its use in gasoline, mandating steep rises from year to year. Yet another government bureaucracy was born to enforce the quotas.

To ease the pain, Congress threw in a 45-cents-a-gallon subsidy ($6 billion a year); to add another layer of protection, it imposed a tariff on imported ethanol of 54 cents a gallon. That successfully shut off cheap imports, produced more efficiently from sugar cane, principally from Brazil.

Here is perhaps the most incredible part: Because of the subsidy, ethanol became cheaper than gasoline, and so we sent 397 million gallons of ethanol overseas last year. America is simultaneously importing costly foreign oil and subsidizing the export of its equivalent.”

In response to the concerns surrounding the country’s trend toward corn for fuel over food, several U.S. Congressmen are working to eliminate tax incentives that encourage domestic ethanol production through subsidies and import tariffs. In the U.S. Senate, a trio of key Congressmen – Senator John Thune (R-SD), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) – are leading a movement to eliminate these subsidies and force domestically-produced ethanol to compete with foreign markets like Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol industry.

In the words of Steven Rattner:

Even farm advocates like former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman agree that the [ethanol] situation must be fixed. Reports filtering out of the budget talks currently under way suggest that agriculture subsidies sit prominently on the chopping block. The time is ripe.”

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of roasted corn on the cob in a bowl © stevendepolo by and used under this Creative Commons License.