If there's a hall of fame for unintended consequences, it ought to save room for the federal corn ethanol requirement.

If there's a hall of fame for unintended consequences, it ought to save room for the federal corn ethanol requirement.


It seemed like a good idea at the time. Ethanol has long been held up as a renewable alternative to gasoline refined from foreign oil, even though it takes almost as much energy to produce as it provides and only heavy subsidies have allowed it to compete with pure gasoline. So, in hopes increased production would help move the U.S. closer to energy independence, Congress passed legislation last year mandating 9 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol be produced in 2008.


But meeting that mandate requires 30 to 35 percent of the nation's corn crop be diverted to ethanol, the Agriculture Department estimates, and the consequence of that should have been anticipated. Corn prices went through the roof, up 80 percent in the last year. Farmers planted more corn, reducing the acreage devoted to soybeans and other staple crops, so those prices went up as well.


Those price increases worked their way through the food chain, raising the cost of meat, bread and a host of other products. A gallon of milk now costs more than a gallon of gas, and that's saying something.


While rising food prices are a hardship here in the United States, food shortages are a crisis in many other countries. Some producer countries are hoarding food staples, and large populations that depend on imported or donated food face malnutrition or worse.


The ethanol mandate isn't the only factor, of course. Rising fuel prices have hurt farmers along with other industries. Flooding in the Midwest is expected to reduce this year's corn harvest by 9 percent. Global demand is growing, particularly in China, where rising incomes are fueling a growing appetite for agriculture-intensive meat.


But the mandate's focus on corn - pushed by the agribusiness lobby and reinforced by the political importance of the Iowa caucuses - is unfortunate. Brazil makes ethanol from sugar, but price supports and import tariffs pushed by the sugar lobby make that impractical here.


Other biofuels hold great promise. "Second generation" biofuels can be made from waste products, like wood chips, switchgrass or corn husks. Other options are in the research phase, including making fuel from algae or similar fast-growing aquatic organisms.


Craig Venter, the scientist who deciphered the human genome, is working on an even more intriguing alternative: Creating a genetically-engineered bacterium that will take carbon dioxide from the air - the most common greenhouse gas contributing to global warming - and convert it to clean-burning fuel. The federal government's focus on corn, Venter says, makes it harder for those exploring better sources of ethanol to find the investment they need to succeed.


America's energy future cannot be limited to corn, any more than it can be limited to oil. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, who is leading a new coalition working to repeal the mandate, puts it simply: "Food should be used primarily to feed people's bellies, not their gas tanks."


Biofuels are good, but the corn ethanol mandate, however well-intentioned, needs to be reworked before more damage is done.