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Hello, Ethanol. Goodbye, Bacon.

The ethanol craze makes its damaging effects known on campus

By Juliet S. Samuel

This past week, complaints about Harvard University Dining Services’ (HUDS) increasingly pallid dinner offerings have been mounting on open lists across campus. Apparently, the usual dinner fare has taken a dive off the deep end recently (living off-campus this year, I myself remain relatively insulated from the decline).

One weary Eliotite (facetiously?) suggested a hunger strike to protest “nasty-nasty cake every night.” Other debate ranged from the merits of chicken quesadillas to the injustice of Harvard students’ delicate palates taking precedence when, “There are millions of people in the world who can’t eat at all.” Of course, it’s rather a stretch (not to mention overly self-flagellating) to suggest that if we were only a little less fussy, African children wouldn’t be starving. But the issues aren’t quite as far apart as you might think.

All of this hullabaloo prompted the HUDS PR department to kick into gear, heralding town hall meetings, open letters and House Council debates galore. The root of the problem is not malice, however; it’s a severe hike in world food prices. Last year saw new records set for wheat and corn prices, and, despite falling since their peaks, they are still high above the average. Unsurprisingly, HUDS is therefore undergoing a serious budget crunch, which means that you can say goodbye to all the rainbow highlights of your humdrum student life—tasty little bacon bits, those weird, whole-wheat waffles.

According to The Economist, there are two reasons for the rise: Asians and ethanol. Firstly, rising wealth levels in Asia have led to higher spending power, and Asians are increasingly choosing to supplement their traditionally cheap, rice-based diets with more expensively produced meat. But the second cause of skyrocketing demand for basic foodstuffs is America’s most recent renewable energy craze: ethanol.

Ethanol, the love-child of Bush’s bad poll ratings, a White House PR campaign, and the worst type of leap-before-you-look environmentalism, has helped to drive what might be the biggest rise in world food prices since the nineteenth century. The shame of it all is that ethanol isn’t going to clear up our climate change woes. Scientists aren’t even agreed that ethanol is energy efficient to produce and, if it is, it makes more sense to abolish immense trade tariffs and buy cheap corn from Brazil than to subsidize US farmers to the tune of $7 billion.

Of course, this is all a tremendous shame for Harvard students, who can say goodbye to red-pepper hummus as they beg, in vain, for the higher powers to dig into our sumptuous endowment.

In poorer countries, the same price hike has left low-income families struggling to maintain a minimal diet. Egypt, which subsidizes bread prices for its poorest citizens, had to shell out an extra $850 million on wheat last year, and the UN blames rising food prices for difficulty in meeting many of its Millennium Development goals in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The only beneficiaries of this folly are, of course, American farmers, who win both from high market prices and from subsidies dished out by a Congress desperate to look like it has some kind of solution to rising oil prices. But ethanol represents, on a broader level, the tendency to rush into high profile, fix-all “solutions” before we have fully analyzed the interdependency of all the elements involved. Instead of pursuing those modest, non-fanciful solutions that we have reason to believe might work (like forest management to increase carbon uptake and a carbon tax), we’ve seen millions of dollars plunged into a wasteful scheme that shuttles money directly from taxpayer to corn farmer, nastily hiking world food prices on the way.

Meanwhile, as government policy and global trends walk right into our dining hall, Harvard students stay, for the most part, focused on their dinner plates. This is to some extent understandable—there isn’t much any of us can do with our dinner plans to alleviate starving in Africa. HUDS might, of course, cut corners, reduce waste, and try making us pay for the food we eat but, in the end, students might have to accept that, between paying Harvard workers a “living wage,” the benefits of unlimited dining, and being, alas, attached to the global economy, greater dining variety is off the menu. And instead of trading insults over open-lists, we’d probably do better to dispatch some keen IOP-niks to lobby against ethanol subsidies in Washington.

Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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