The arid soil created by the drought is expected to reduce the U.S. corn crop by 17 percent from last year. That dire prediction is escalating rhetoric about the relative amounts of corn used for ethanol and livestock feed.
The Environmental Protection Agency should resist exaggerated claims by governors in livestock-producing states who seek to appease farm lobbyists. But the EPA may have to grant some waivers from a renewable-fuel standard that requires 40 percent of this year's corn crop to be set aside for ethanol production. Otherwise, the rising cost of food will be harder to curb.
Critics have long dismissed ethanol as a boondoggle. They argue it provides only a marginal increase in energy independence and little relief at the gasoline pump, without much reduction in greenhouse gases. They say ethanol provides corporate welfare for major corn growers but has done little to change Americans' driving habits.
Some caution is in order. The Renewable Fuels Association calculates that waivers to the ethanol standard could cost individual households $24 to $85 more in 2013. While those households might be able to reduce annual food expenses by $3 to $9 if more corn is diverted to food production, the group claims, those savings would be wiped out by higher fuel prices.
Corn prices are expected to rise by as much as 25 percent because of the drought. Ethanol critics cite the fuel standard as a key factor in the quadrupling of corn prices since 2005. The United Nations is urging the United States, which grows much of its corn for global food markets, to scale back its production of corn-based ethanol.
Congress should re-examine corn's role in food and fuel production, but it also must check out other technologies that can reduce greenhouse gases and reliance on foreign oil.
The Government Accountability Office says increasing demand for ethanol production has contributed to higher corn prices, which, in turn, have increased food costs. This summer's drought, one of the worst in decades, accentuates those concerns. As it deals with the politics of corn, government must put consumers' needs ahead of producers'.