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How does Demand for Ethanol Affect Impoverished Mexican Families?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2016
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Ethanol, a corn based alternative fuel, has been hailed by the alternative energy community as a way to reduce dependence on petroleum fuels. Rising demand for ethanol, especially in America, has led to an interesting side affect on the global market: the cost of corn rapidly increased in 2006, quadrupling in some areas. The increased price of corn has led to a potential nutritional crisis for impoverished Mexican families, which rely heavily on corn tortillas for nutrition.

Ethanol has been proposed as a source of fuel for vehicles because it is a renewable energy source. If the corn grown to make the ethanol is sustainably and sensibly grown, the crop can yield raw material for fuel efficiently and with far less environmental impact than petroleum based fuels. Some states allow gas stations to mix ethanol and conventional petroleum based fuels, while in other areas, cars which run entirely on ethanol are being driven by people from all walks of life. The development of more efficient distillation and distribution technologies has led many environmental activists to hail ethanol as an alternative energy solution.

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However, the flip side to the equation is that corn is in a lot of foods worldwide. In the United States, corn is a constituent in most processed foods, due to the myriad ways in which it can be processed and packaged. Food prices in the United States began to climb in 2006, reflecting the rising price of corn, but most consumers were able to bear the small change in cost. Many other countries also experienced a rise in food prices as a result of the climbing cost of corn.

In Mexico, where many families are living on limited budgets, the rising price of raw corn has a serious impact. The tortilla, an unleavened flat bread made from corn, is a staple component 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 minimally processed tortilla an important, and healthy, part of the Mexican diet. Rising corn prices have led to an inability to purchase the raw ingredients for tortillas, or to purchase pre-made 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 that it has staved off obesity and malnutrition in Mexico, because of the traditional way in which tortillas are made: using a calcium powder and no fat. Impoverished families are not able to devote potentially up to one third of their income to tortillas, so they have started seeking out cheaper and less nutritious alternatives, many of which are imported from the United States. The net effect is a depression of the local economy, because families are no longer buying locally made tortillas, and a decline in nutritional health, because the cheap alternatives to tortillas do not contain valuable nutrients.

While petroleum dependent nations have hailed the explosion of ethanol onto the alternative fuel scene, impoverished nations like Mexico are struggling with how to feed their populace while remaining players on the global market. A number of solutions to the rising corn prices have been suggested, including a subsidy for corn from the Mexican government. Nutritionists urge the government to take action quickly, because in addition to losing valuable culinary heritage, financially strapped Mexicans may also be facing serious health problems.

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