Though cellulosic ethanol holds promise as a potential renewable energy source, we cannot adapt a “by whatever means necessary” approach to developing it. Industry advocates, like James Greenwood in a recent Congress blog entry, argue that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) ― the federal policy that mandates ever-increasing volumes of biofuels be blended into the fuel supply ― helps spur innovation, bringing us closer to commercializing these fuels. However, the unfortunate reality is that after nearly 10 years, the cellulosic industry is still stalled. Meanwhile, the broken policy has mainly accelerated corn ethanol production to unsustainable rates, harming the environment it is meant to save and leaving millions of people at risk of going hungry. 

Congress enacted the RFS in 2005 and expanded it in 2007, partly with the intent to reduce emissions that cause climate change. As a result, the United States is now the world’s leading ethanol producer, using corn as the primary ingredient. The consequent expansion of corn production has been wreaking havoc on our water and land ever since. 

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Corn production demands more water than any other U.S. crop ― 15.4 million acre-feet annually. The United Nations warns that if the RFS remains intact, growing enough corn and other biofuel crops to meet the mandate will divert nearly 1 in 10 gallons of total U.S. water consumption to irrigation by 2030. 

In addition to further straining our already depleted water supply, countless independent experts, and even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have pointed to ethanol mandates as a major contributor to increased fertilizer runoff and water pollution in the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” This Connecticut-sized area of oxygen-deprived water kills off aquatic life, harming local ecosystems and the local economies that depend on them. 

The RFS corn ethanol mandate is just as bad for our land. Since 2000, U.S. ethanol production has grown over 700 percent, raising demand for corn and increasing its price. From 2008 to 2011, these price spikes incentivized farmers to plow over more than 23 million acres of pristine land to plant more of the crop. Not only does this land conversion undermine biodiversity by destroying wildlife habitats, it also releases as much as an estimated 236 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. The EPA’s own assessment finds that corn ethanol production emits 33 percent more greenhouse gases than gasoline. 

In addition to environmental pitfalls, corn ethanol drives up food prices and leaves millions of people at risk of going hungry. As the world’s population climbs toward 9.6 billion in 2050, global hunger is a growing concern. Today, one in nine people globally go to bed hungry every night. Yet in 2012, the U.S., the world’s largest corn producer, diverted 40 percent of its corn crop to produce ethanol under the RFS. That same amount of corn could have fed 412 million people — more than half of the world’s hungry. 

The UN warns that biofuel mandates will also exacerbate food insecurity around the world by raising the price of food items, including corn, wheat, rice and soybeans, by as much as 20 percent. Between 2005 and 2011, U.S. ethanol expansion hit developing countries with an additional $6.6 billion for corn imports

In the United States, prices for meat, poultry, fish and eggs have increased 78 percent since the RFS was expanded in 2007. In turn, the average American family of four has experienced a $2,000 increase in grocery costs — a cost that low income families cannot afford. This year’s record corn crop granted some relief, but the fact is, corn prices have been rising since 2007 and the overall trend continues to climb. 

Last month, the EPA missed an opportunity to address these RFS impacts. Had the agency followed through on the original proposal, it could have relieved pressure on staple food prices and effectively lowered U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to taking 580,000 cars off the road for a year. Instead, their inaction — after nearly a year of delays — demonstrated the glaring reality that the RFS is a broken and unworkable policy. 

It’s time that we began implementing policies that make sense for our planet and people. Every day that we fail to act, our waterways and lands become more polluted and families go hungry. Congress must now step up and reform the RFS once and for all. Only then will our nation be on track to a truly sustainable future. 

Schreiber is the Climate and Energy Program Director at Friends of the Earth. Sundell is director of Policy and Campaigns at ActionAid USA.