Networks Ignore Government's Role in Ethanol-Driven Global Food Crisis

     Prices for groceries like corn, bread, meat, cheese and milk have been on the rise for American grocery shoppers. Food riots have broken out in third-world countries where the cost of food has left millions hungry.

     But U.S. network news reports have ignored the true cause of the suffering: U.S. government mandates for ethanol, a gasoline additive made with corn that networks called the “wave of the future” in its early stages.

     “This is the new front line in an unexpected global food crisis that has spread from the Middle East, where bread is in dangerously short supply, to Africa, where millions can no longer afford to buy food,” ABC’s Mike Lee said on “World News with Charles Gibson” April 20.

     On April 8, NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams reported on “something of a crisis” in Haiti, where demonstrators protested “the soaring cost of food in what is, after all, a very poor nation, where a lot of people cannot afford food.”

     At home, prices in U.S. groceries stores have been on the rise. Chicken is up 10 percent in the last year; milk is up 25 percent; bread is up 16 percent; eggs are up 35 percent, according to the April 16 “Nightly News.”

     In an Earth Day column in The Washington Post April 22, 2008, Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown and Clean Air Task Force lawyer Jonathan Lewis blamed government-mandated ethanol use for the problems.

     “[T]he evidence irrefutably demonstrates that this policy is not delivering on either goal,” Brown and Lewis wrote. “In fact, it is causing environmental harm and contributing to a growing global food crisis.”

     The mandates have drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, including conservatives opposed to government intervention or skeptical of global warming alarmism and now liberals opposed to the effects the mandate is having on food prices. One United Nations official even called using crops for fuel a “crime against humanity,” according to the Associated Press, and called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production.

    But while environmentalists have made the connection between government-mandated ethanol and food price problems, the network news giants – ABC, CBS and NBC – have been slow on the uptake.

     In the last two years, the networks have run 69 stories about corn-based ethanol. Much of the early coverage of ethanol was positive, declaring the fuel “the wave of the future.” But as grocery prices started to rise, the media started connecting the dots. Since January 2007, 34 of those stories – a little less than half overall – mentioned a connection between ethanol production and increased food prices for American consumers.

     Much of the coverage, however, has suggested that market demand for ethanol has led to increased corn costs – without noting that demand has been artificially created by government mandate to advance environmental goals. And only three stories connected ethanol to larger problems with global food prices.

Cause and Effect

     In 2005, the U.S. government mandated that biofuels like ethanol be mixed into the nation’s gasoline supply – 4 billion gallons in 2006 with a goal of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.

     The increased demand for corn led farmers to switch to the more profitable crop. As ethanol demand bid up the price of corn, other farmers had to pay more to feed animals, driving up the cost of meat and other animal products such as cheese and milk.

     Also, when farmers switched from growing wheat, soy and other produce to corn, the supply of the other goods dropped, leading to increased prices.

     While the switch has resulted in higher grocery prices in the United States, it has manifested itself more tragically in other parts of the world. On the ABC “World News with Charles Gibson” April 10, David Muir reported that “the soaring cost of food is fueling anger and depression” in Haiti. Rice is up 147 percent in the last year, Muir reported. Grain is up 47 percent; dairy is up 80 percent.

     “Those biofuels are, in fact, a large part of the equation,” Muir said, making him one of only three network reporters to connect ethanol to the crisis. “Many farmers around the world who once grew wheat and rice, now grow corn and sugar cane instead, to produce ethanol.”

     But Muir only described ethanol as “a more lucrative market,” rather than reporting that government mandates are what make it a more lucrative market.

     Adding insult to injury, recent reports show production of ethanol is actually worse for the environment than burning fossil fuels. Environmentalists are complaining about demand for ethanol leading to deforestation of Brazilian rain forests.

     And the problem may get worse. In 2007, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation that doubles the 2012 goal and mandates 36 billion gallons of biofuel be mixed into the gasoline supply by 2022.

     The “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” passed with overwhelming support: 314-to-100 in the House and 86-to-8 in the Senate. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) was a co-sponsor of the bill, but he did not vote on it. His Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), voted for an earlier version of the bill but did not cast ballots in the vote for final passage. However, Newsweek reported both Clinton and Obama support adding 60 billion gallons of biofuel by 2030.

     Six network news broadcasts reported the mandated increase in ethanol around the time the bill was signed. Bill Plante was the only network reporter at the time to note the effect the increased mandate would have on food prices, saying on the December 19 CBS “Early Show” the bill “calls for so much ethanol that the price of corn and food could skyrocket.”

     More than 82 percent of the coverage of the connection between ethanol and food prices failed to mention the government’s role in creating the problem. In fact, much of the early coverage was demonstrably positive about ethanol’s role.


Shilling for Corn

     In May 2006, the NBC “Today” show praised ethanol. Host Katie Couric called it an “easy solution” for America’s dependence on oil. She also called ethanol “the wave of the future.”

     Dan Rather, once the anchor of the CBS “Evening News,” said on the May 7, 2006, “60 Minutes” that ethanol is “cheaper and cleaner,” neither of which has turned out to be true.

     Other reports have said ethanol provides more horsepower to car engines – like a “World News Sunday” report on March 25, 2007.

     A March 31, 2007, NBC “Nightly News” suggested ethanol is “supposed to help rescue American from dependence on foreign oil.” The segment highlighted the benefits increased ethanol production held for corn farmers.

     “Because of the demand for ethanol, the price of corn is up nearly 75 percent in the last year,” reporter Scott Cohn said. “A windfall on the farm at the local co-op where they sell seed and fertilizers.”

     Cohn’s reported suggested good news for farmers was good news for the economy, but he ignored the fact that the demand was artificial and the possibility that higher prices would strain American families’ grocery budgets or exacerbate world hunger problems.

     As recently as April 11, 2008, ABC’s “20/20” characterized ethanol as a good replacement for traditional fuels. In a segment about “the human footprint,” Elizabeth Vargas and Living Homes CEO Steve Glenn showed ethanol as a replacement for wood in high-tech fireplaces without mentioning the negative effects of the fuel.

     Even environmentalists have recognized the mistake of government-mandated ethanol and are calling for it to be undone.

     “Taking these together – the environmental damage, the human pain of food price inflation, the failure to reduce our dependence on oil – it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that food-to-fuel mandates have failed,” Brown and Lewis said in their column for The Washington Post.

     “Congress took a big chance on biofuels that, unfortunately, has not worked out,” they said. “Now, in the spirit of progress, let us learn the appropriate lessons from this setback, and let us act quickly to mitigate the damage and set upon a new course that holds greater promise for meeting the challenges ahead.”