Negative Unintended Consequences of Corn Ethanol Production Incentives
This month, the University of Missouri Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute released its 2010 US Baseline Briefing Book (PDF). Among other topics, the report explores the effects of eliminating the credits and tariffs currently in place for corn ethanol. The current corn ethanol tax credit has many unintended negative consequences, and the United States would be better off if the program were scrapped entirely.
- This production incentive encourages overproduction. This is undesireable from an environmental perspective, because it leads to deforestation. It’s also detrimental for the American economy because it results in an inefficient allocation of resources.
- It increases the cost of fuel for taxpayers. Each gallon of ethanol that is produced costs them $4.18. This is separate from and in addition to the price that they pay at the pump. In a piece on The Huffington Post, Nathanael Greene explains how this happens:
[N]ext year the oil companies will be required to buy 12.6 billion gallons of conventional corn ethanol, but because tax payers are giving them $5.85 billion they’ll consume 1.4 billion more than required. That works out to $4.18 per extra gallon.
- It drives up the prices for corn, soybeans, and wheat. This is bad for consumers because they have to pay more for food. This is also bad for the environment because it leads to land-use change and further overproduction and deforestation. The FAPRI report quantifies that eliminating the tax credit for corn ethanol would cause the prices of these grains to fall. According to p. 64, if the production incentives were removed, the average corn prices would decrease by approximately $0.15 per bushel during the 2010-2019 period:
- It discourages the development of biofuels that are cleaner and more renewable than corn ethanol. These alternatives are forced to compete at a disadvantage because they do not receive the financial favor that corn ethanol does.
The corn ethanol production incentive program is an application of the broken window fallacy. Politicians in Washington fail to consider the cost to taxpayers, and the aforementioned negative consequences. When taxpayers are forced to spend their money on subsidizing the overproduction of corn ethanol, they cannot spend it on something else, such as infrastructure or education or alternative renewable fuels.
Supporters of the production incentives will argue that discontinuing the program would hurt farmers’ bottom lines. However, government payments constitute a very small amount of their compensation relative to sales, as shown on p. 62 of the report. For this reason, eliminating the production incentives would not actually be detrimental to this group: