By Roger Repohl
June 18, 2007
THE BRONX, N.Y. - Over the years, the children who farm at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx have been most fond of planting the "Three Sisters" for their summer gardening project. They dig up the soil, and after playing with (or running from) the earthworms and other bugs they churn up, they add compost and then shape the dirt into circular mounds. They poke kernels of corn into the mounds, cover them up, water, and wait (the hardest part). When the corn seedlings are up and growing, they plant pole bean seeds at the base of each mound and a few seeds of summer squash in between. Then they water, wait, and watch. As the corn stalks grow, the bean plants twine around them while the squash crawls along the ground. By midsummer, the kids are harvesting fistfuls of string beans and little yellow crooknecks, and some weeks later, big ears of corn (if the squirrels don’t get them first).
The Three Sisters is a planting method traditional to the Iroquois and other Indian nations of the East. It maximizes the use of the land, with two vegetables growing vertically and the third horizontally, and each plant benefits the other: the corn stalks support the bean plants, the bean plants return nitrogen to the soil to feed the hungry corn, and the squashes crowd out the weeds, retain moisture, and cool the earth below.
Kids love the Three Sisters. Not only do they learn about the way of life of Native Americans, but they actually practice it. They like planting the Indian way, three days before the full moon in May, while "thinking kind thoughts." They come to realize what it is like to befriend their environment and live in harmony with it.
And then there’s ethanol.
There is something subtly perverse, as well as positively ominous, about this latest unconsidered prescription for energy independence based on fuel made from corn. I’ll consider the ominous first.
In 2005, Congress passed an energy bill containing a "renewable fuel standard" that required increasing the amount of ethanol blended in gasoline from five to ten percent overall by 2012, while enticing refiners into compliance with a tax break of what is now 51 cents per gallon of ethanol used. The oil companies enthusiastically embraced this mandate, so much so that last year they’d already beaten it by 25%, along with hiking their already swollen profit margins.
Our eco-friendly President has been pushing ethanol passionately of late, to burnish his greener image. But it is important to realize that energy independence and pollution control are two quite different things. Though research results vary (depending on what criteria the researchers use, and who funds them), the most balanced sources conclude that ethanol is no cleaner burning than gasoline and actually becomes less so as proportions increase. In last October’s issue, Consumer Reports released test results showing that using E-85, a motor fuel that’s 85% ethanol, gas mileage decreased an average of 27% over standard gasoline in the same vehicle, meaning more pollution per gallon, not less. Still, the automakers, which can trade low fuel economy for high ethanol content, are all over the media with do-gooder slogans like GM’s "Live green, go yellow."
All the above are not really ominous; they’re just business as usual among big oil, big auto, and big government. The real omens come from the convergence of food and fuel.
Over just the last year, corn prices have risen from a relatively stable $2 a bushel to close to $4, due to the demand for ethanol, which now takes 20% of U.S. corn production and may eat up half of it as soon as next year. Higher corn prices mean higher prices for all the food products that depend on corn, from pork to milk to cereal. Check your grocery bill; it’s happening right now.
Here is where the perversion enters. As with gas prices, most well-off Americans will complain about but tolerate food price increases. But those living on limited incomes will face ever greater strains on their resources, forcing more of them into food stamps and food pantries. As more and more of our grain is consumed as fuel, worldwide emergency food distributions will be cut back. Most ominous of all, farmers large and small, now profiting handsomely from the ethanol boom, will return to the dangerous one-crop practices that led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, the agricultural version of strip-mining; without crop rotation, soils will require more artificial fertilization and insecticides. And then there is the very real possibility of a drought in the corn belt comparable to the current one in the Southwest. Such a combination of factors may bring about a food crisis greater than any energy crisis we’ve seen.
There is something fundamentally wrong in a deeper sense about mixing food with fuel, about putting corn into your gas tank instead of your mouth. The ethanol fix-all further disengages our already disengaged relationship to our food.
The kids in our garden are re-learning something our ancestors took for granted, something now so foreign we’ve had to give it a niche-name: "sustainable agriculture," the ways of providing local food for local people.
Compare the Three Sisters to the Archer Daniels Midland Company. The sisters speak for themselves.