Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The More Things Change

The value of sustainability depends on what one is sustaining. In earlier posts, I've discussed the role of GOP nepotism in wind-farm siting; the idea of a solar-powered empire; and the outlook for environmentally friendly torture.

All of which ties in, to my mind, with Tom Philpott's article on the latest doings at Archer Daniels Midland:

The ascension to CEO of Patricia Woertz, most recently executive vice president at Chevron, marks the end of a four-decade run at ADM's top by the Andreas family. That venerable clan, whose chicanery runs from a key role in the Watergate scandal to a price-fixing scheme in the 1990s, built ADM into one of the U.S.'s most politically connected corporations. Congressional beneficiaries of ADM's campaign generosity likely need not fear; G. Allen Andreas, who has served as CEO since 1997 (when his uncle and predecessor was convicted of fixing the price of lysine, a corn product used in animal feed), will stay on as chairman of the board of directors....

The move eloquently signals ADM's intention to continue its rush into the auto-fuel market. The company has made billions over the years extracting the Midwest's soil fertility and transforming it into crappy food products like high-fructose corn syrup, buoyed by government commodity policy and the sugar quota. Now it intends to do the same in service of the internal-combustion engine.
Needless to say, Philpott goes on to explain that there's nothing remotely "green" about ADM's ethanol. From cashing in on government subsidies that reward overproduction of corn, to triggering an environmental and economic crisis in Brazil, ADM's approach to biofuels is expensive and dangerous. (A few years ago, the CATO Institute claimed that "every $1 of profits earned by [ADM's] ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30.")

But then, as Dwayne Andreas of ADM once said:
"There isn't one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market. Not one! The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians."
Ms. Woertz, unsurprisingly, sees growth potential for ADM:
[W]e see significant trends that allow more protein-intensive diets and so forth in much of the world, particularly Asia. We see a shift in renewable energy supplies being needed.
As with the ostensibly cheap food that factory farms produce, consumers pay for ethanol three times: They pay for subsidies and R&D funding to industry; they pay at the cash register; and they pay for the external costs of any social and environmental problems that arise from unsustainable production techniques (which include, for those who are keeping track, the costs associated with illegal immigration).

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