Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Sustainability of Corn-Based Products

Corn-based products are considered to be environmentally-friendly because they are an alternative to petroleum-based products. Many products are made from corn, such as clothing items, carpet, food containers, tires, and now computers. But to be fully sustainable, we must consider the triple social, economic, and environmental impact of agriculture for use in manufacturing products. This is a summary of the ongoing debate.

Social Impact: Food Shortages

Jean Ziegler of the UN states, "Using land for biofuels would result in massacres" due to a reduction in the amount of food aid sent to developing countries by richer ones.

According to the Global Risks Report 2008 from the World Economic Forum, "Food security, at the nexus of a number of issues from energy security to climate change and water scarcity, may be emerging as one of the major risks of the 21st century....The consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable communities, may be harsh."

Other foods, such as agave plants (for tequila), are now being supplanted by the more profitable corn crop.

Economic Impact: Higher Prices

The Global Risks Report also states, "In 2007, prices for many staple foods reached record levels. The price of corn in late 2007 was 50% higher than 12 months previously. The price of wheat was double. Global food reserves are at their lowest in 25 years and, as a result, world food supply is vulnerable to an international crisis or natural disaster."

"In 2007, (UK) food and drink prices rose at their fastest rate in 14 years, at 4.7%. In the US, food prices were up 4.4% year-over-year at the end of 2007 – double the rate of non-food, non-energy inflation – partially due to increased acreage devoted to corn to make ethanol." Food prices increased even more in developing countries.

Environmental Impact: More Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Research has shown that US corn ethanol has a worse life cycle impact on the environment than gasoline, partly because it takes more energy to produce. And research has also shown that corn-based cups and food containers ranked 2nd (of 4 plastics products) in energy usage, only behind PET plastic containers (frequently used for soft drink bottles). And deforestation is occuring in order to plant palm oil and soya for biofuels.

In using corn and other agricultural crops for the manufacture of products, we must consider the triple social, economic, and environmental impact in order to be fully sustainable.

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