Amartya Sen’s low opinion of ethanol

Amartya Sen teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard and received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998. He writes today’s New York Times about the global food crisis:

Much discussion is rightly devoted to the division between haves and have-nots in the global economy, but the world’s poor are themselves divided between those who are experiencing high growth and those who are not. The rapid economic expansion in countries like China, India and Vietnam tends to sharply increase the demand for food. This is, of course, an excellent thing in itself, and if these countries could manage to reduce their unequal internal sharing of growth, even those left behind there would eat much better.

But the same growth also puts pressure on global food markets — sometimes through increased imports, but also through restrictions or bans on exports to moderate the rise in food prices at home, as has happened recently in countries like India, China, Vietnam and Argentina. Those hit particularly hard have been the poor, especially in Africa.

There is also a high-tech version of the tale of two peoples. Agricultural crops like corn and soybeans can be used for making ethanol for motor fuel. So the stomachs of the hungry must also compete with fuel tanks.

Misdirected government policy plays a part here, too. In 2005, the United States Congress began to require widespread use of ethanol in motor fuels. This law combined with a subsidy for this use has created a flourishing corn market in the United States, but has also diverted agricultural resources from food to fuel. This makes it even harder for the hungry stomachs to compete.

Ethanol use does little to prevent global warming and environmental deterioration, and clear-headed policy reforms could be urgently carried out, if American politics would permit it. Ethanol use could be curtailed, rather than being subsidized and enforced.

Read it here.

Government policy does make a difference. World rice prices have tumbled since Cambodia — one of many countries to institute export controls on rice — removed its rice export ban. Meanwhile, the U.S. house and senate this month passed the Farm Bill with veto proof majorities.

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