The increased demand for corn-based ethanol has led to a rise in the cost of corn, causing a potential nutritional crisis for poor Mexican families who rely on corn tortillas for food. While ethanol is a renewable energy source, the rising cost of corn has also affected food prices globally, with many countries experiencing a rise in food prices. The Mexican government has been urged to act quickly to prevent serious health problems for financially strapped Mexicans.
Ethanol, a corn-based alternative fuel, has been hailed by the alternative energy community as a way to reduce reliance on petroleum fuels. The increased demand for ethanol, especially in America, has led to an interesting side effect on the global market: the cost of corn rose rapidly in 2006, quadrupling in some areas. The rising price of corn has led to a potential nutritional crisis for poor Mexican families, who rely heavily on corn tortillas for food.
Ethanol has been proposed as a vehicle fuel source because it is a renewable energy source. If the corn grown to make ethanol is grown sustainably and sensibly, the crop can produce fuel feedstock efficiently and with much less environmental impact than petroleum-based fuels. Some states allow gas stations to blend ethanol and conventional petroleum-based fuels, while in other areas, cars that run entirely on ethanol are driven by people from all walks of life. The development of more efficient distillation and distribution technologies has led many environmental activists to consider ethanol as an alternative energy solution.
However, the flip side of the equation is that corn is found in many foods around the world. In the United States, corn is a constituent of most processed foods, due to the myriad ways it can be processed and packaged. US food prices began to rise in 2006, reflecting the rising price of corn, but most consumers were able to afford the small change in cost. Many other countries have also experienced a rise in food prices due to the rising cost of corn.
In Mexico, where many families live on tight budgets, the rising price of raw corn has a serious impact. The tortilla, an unleavened flatbread made from corn, is a staple of the Mexican diet. In addition to being eaten as part of a burrito, enchilada or quesadilla, tortillas can also be eaten plain. Corn has a number of valuable nutrients and is also high in fiber, making the relatively lightly processed tortilla an important and healthy part of the Mexican diet. Rising corn prices have resulted in the inability to purchase the raw materials for tortillas or purchase pre-packaged versions.
While flour tortillas are made in some parts of Mexico, they are not as widespread as the corn variety and tend to be more expensive. The tortilla is an important part of the Mexican diet and many believe it has staved off obesity and malnutrition in Mexico, due to the traditional way tortillas are made: using a calcium powder and no fat. Poor households are unable to potentially devote up to a third of their income to tortillas, so they have begun looking for cheaper and less nutritious alternatives, many of them imported from the United States. The net effect is a depression in the local economy, because families no longer buy locally made tortillas, and a decline in nutritional health, because cheap alternatives to tortillas don’t contain valuable nutrients.
While oil-dependent nations have greeted the explosion of ethanol on the alternative fuel scene, poor nations like Mexico are struggling with how to feed their population while remaining players in the global marketplace. A number of solutions have been suggested for rising corn prices, including a corn subsidy from the Mexican government. Nutritionists urge the government to act quickly, because in addition to losing precious culinary heritage, financially strapped Mexicans could also face serious health problems.