Milk is $3.50 a gallon and rising– that’s way too expensive AND unrealistically cheap.

A quick tidbit: This article rightly condemns the fact that milk prices are soaring. It argues that this is the case because corn meal (cow feed, in other words) is rising in price due to the diversion of corn to the newly subsidized ethanol industry.

The article is absolutely correct in its argument that ethanol production is in fact not environmentally friendly. However, I would clarify that the overproduction of corn is so high in the US that it’s not a matter of shortages; in fact, the push toward ethanol production is profitable because it allows agribusiness to grow the same amount of corn without the downward push on prices that is an inevitable result of overproduction. We produce too much corn; massive agribusiness producers receive huge subsidies from the federal government (subsidies originally intended to protect small farmers from the vagaries of the market); prices have to be kept artificially high in order to protect profits. Producers have for decades dumped billions of tons of grain (mostly wheat and corn) into the ocean in order to keep prices high– an unforgivable crime in a world in which people still starve to death. But shipping free grain to, say, the Sudan wouldn’t inflate prices; creating a new fuel industry that puts the grain glut to use does.

Furthermore, the article is right that ethanol production doesn’t do a damn thing about global warming. Its carbon emissions are slightly lower than those of gasoline, but such massive quantities of fossil fuels are used in the production of the corn that the net lessening of emissions is negligible. (Agriculture produces more carbon emissions than any other US industry.) The only claim to ‘sustainability’ ethanol has is that it is a renewable energy source, unlike oil.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s eye-opening tour through food production in the US, Pollan demolishes these claims– and points out that the milk we drink, like other industrial food, is artificially cheap. Paying a dollar for a gallon of milk– or even $3.50– doesn’t reflect the true cost to our health, our economy and the environment involved in the production of that milk.

So the next time you see a slick ad for BP or Shell telling you how very environmentally responsible and kind-hearted and lovable energy companies are– don’t buy it. And consider getting your milk from your local farmstand, where the cows might just eat grass, like their bodies are built to do. It’ll be better for you, and the way prices are going this summer, it might just be cheaper.

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