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An Open Letter to Tim Searchinger and all the other Gasoline Whores

Originally published February 11, 2011

Hi Tim -

In reading your editorial in today's Washington Post, I'm reminded of the famous movie line, “Just when I thought I caught up with the rat race the rats got faster.”

For a few years, whenever those opponents of ethanol launched a new attack on widespread acceptance or expansion of ethanol, we would hear about how the use of corn was affecting the overall price of food and causing worldwide starvation.

It took some time, but finally ethanol advocates started to prove that corn use for ethanol had no relationship to the rise in corn prices or general food prices, and that its use to make biofuels did not contribute to either a shortage or world hunger – primarily because the world outside of America doesn’t eat corn, they eat wheat. In this regard, the World Bank’s statement issued last summer reversed their earlier claim that ethanol was the reason for corn price rises and shortages.

Obviously, from your story, you know that the cost of the corn actually used in a box of corn flakes is a minuscule amount, roughly 1.5% of a $4 retail price.

So, to use the rat-rat race analogy, you came up with a new way to cast the same old worn-out story. Instead of corn flakes, which you agree that the world doesn’t eat like us Americans, you substitute corn meal for corn flakes. However, you really didn’t do your homework very well.

To begin with, corn meal is used for many other things than feeding starving people around the world. Corn meal is used as a plant fungicide, for weed prevention, insect repellant and to protect wooden floors. So why not blame the rise in corn meal prices on people who wish to use a non-chemical solution to their garden and pest problems? What, chemical fertilizers and insecticides are not good enough?

Why not be critical of people who like to dance on wooden floors? You mean it’s okay for a family in Somalia to starve just because some ballroom in New York doesn’t want to have to refinish their wood floor so often?

In addition, corn meal is used by seafood chefs as a simple, low-cost way to fatten clams and mussels before cooking them in any number of favorite recipes. Why not blame seafood lovers and restaurants for causing a run up of corn prices and shortages? I’ll bet that there are far more people who regularly eat clams and mussels than use ethanol.

Expanding on this chain of thought, let’s look at another significant use of corn: as a sweetener in soft drinks, candy and other snacks. Here we are, in the midst of what many people believe is a fast-food-obesity epidemic and you’re blaming ethanol for too much use of corn. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone concerned if you, a degreed fellow at a prestigious think tank, made the argument that we shouldn’t be eating so much junk food? It would be better for the health of non-starving humans, while leaving more “corn” for the starving humans.

Next, since even the worst scenarios merely depict a situation in which corn supplies will only be low until the next harvest, not exhausted, then there isn’t really any reason for corn prices to rise…except for one reason, and one reason only: commodity speculators. And, as I know that even you must know, it was due to commodity speculators that there was the previous rise in corn prices that had been errantly blamed on ethanol production.

However, most importantly, your blame on ethanol production for the real or imagined starvation of peoples around the world has absolutely nothing to do with corn ethanol production and use, but on the massive wheat failures in Russia and China. If either or both Russia and China had improved their farming methods, instead of screwing around with deviant forms of government for the past eight decades or so, they probably wouldn’t have had to face crop failures, again, creating a real (or imagined) food shortage. So why do we have to make up for their failures? Why are we responsible? Why should we have to sacrifice, once again, national aspirations for energy independence because of Russia and China’s farming failures? When and where have you written a paper that lays the blame for food price increases or shortages on them?

What truly amazes and concerns me is that there are people like you, who have wasted the educational resources of America to put forth the rubbish that you do. If your goal in life was simply to figure out how to suck up oil industry money couldn’t you have just opened a gasoline service station and been satisfied with providing clean restrooms for your customers? Why take up space in a classroom? Why tarnish the name of an institution like Princeton? Why write and publish a report that isn’t fit to wrap fish in?

If you got this far in the letter, thanks for your time. I hope that it has some impact on you.

Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher