Corn War: Is Ethanol Increasing The Price Of Big Macs?

The drought-inspired battle over the U.S. requirement to blend corn ethanol into gasoline might have ended with the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling in favor of the mandate, but the war goes on.

There was a new flare-up this week, brought on by a study financed by the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the group’s accompanying op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which asserted “the leading driver of long-term increases in food costs is a deeply flawed federal mandate.”

That mandate in the NCCR’s crosshairs is the renewable fuel standard that requires increasing amounts of renewable fuel be blended into U.S. gasoline, from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. As the biofuels industry stands now, most of this fuel is ethanol made from corn.

The claim from NCCR and their PricewaterhouseCoopers study – which is really just one of those surveys of other studies done on the topic – is that “by the time the mandate’s 2015 goals are met, it will have caused a 27 percent increase in corn prices.”

As you might imagine, the biofuels industry was quick to dispute the claim, hauling out studies that it said showed “food prices are not advancing abnormally.”

So, what should you take away from this battle of studies?

Let me suggest this: We eat too damn much corn!

I’m not talking about lightly buttered and salted fresh sweet summer cobs picked up at a roadside stand or the farmer’s market or even the megamart. I’m talking about the implicit truth contained in the NCCR study: Chain restaurants are feeding us corn.

Allow me to refer to a study. Done in 2008 and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this study looked at the chemical composition of the burgers, chicken sandwiches and french fries at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King restaurants across the U.S. It found that whether it’s a McChicken Sandwich, a Whopper or a Large Fries, it’s loaded with corn (those fries are often cooked in corn oil), because corn is the backbone of so much of the U.S. food industry.

The truly remarkable thing is that, these researchers concluded that we eat mostly corn when we eat at fast-food restaurants even though they didn’t take into account the soda. That’s right, even before we gulp down the inevitable corn-syrup sweetened soda, we’re loading up on corn.

And even the NCCR acknowledges all the badness that flows from growing corn on a massive scale, writing in the Journal that growing more corn forces us to “convert forests into croplands, substitute normal crop rotation with practices that use more fertilizers, and further tax local water resources.”

So while the debate rages over whether or not we should turn corn into fuel, certainly there can be no debate that we ought to eat less of the corn offered up to us by members of the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Just like cattle, we are becoming corn fed. I wonder who we are getting fattened up for?

    • Pete Danko

      For Big Pharma and their diabetes meds maybe?

  • Roehnan

    Some of us have to eat corn, since we can’t eat wheat. Look up celiac disease before making generalities about eating corn.

    • Pete Danko

      You telling me corn-fed beef, pork and chicken and corn-syrup-filled soft drinks — the kind of crap I’m obviously talking about in this article — are necessities of the celiac diet? Never knew. Guess I do need to do more research.

      • Roehnan

        No that is not what I’m saying. Surely all that lousy food isn’t required. But before generalizing all corn consumption as forced on us and evil, please realize that some of us need corn. I’m just asking for consideration.

        • Pete Danko

          “Surely all that lousy food isn’t required.” Word!