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Food vs. Fuel Debate Still Alive and Well


 It is a fact that if you say something loud enough and long enough people will begin to believe you —  despite how ludicrous your statement is. The debate over food vs. fuel is an example. While years after the facts and reality continue to disprove the assertion that American farmers cannot produce enough to meet both food and fuel demands, this myth continues to live on and is accepted as fact by people who in other aspects of their life seem sane. The reason for the seemingly  immortal myth is not hard to find: it is money.


Matt Tomano, the General Manager of the POET biorefinery in Portland, Indiana, discovered this recently when he went to Washington to lobby for support of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). He found many high ranking members of Congress and their staffs firm believers in the Food vs. Fuel concept.  When asked where they got their information, they responded that it was from the oil industry.  The oil lobby is omnipresent on Capitol Hill with a very large and very well-financed staff. It has been estimated that the oil industry has spent over $800 million in the past 5 years to lobby against renewable fuel.  In addition, the industry spent more millions on newspaper and other media ads in the DC press to propagate the Food Vs Fuel message. One staffer told Tomano he sees on average about 6 ads per day from the oil lobby, many promoting the Food vs. Fuel myth.


Many urban lawmakers, who have very little connection to the renewable fuels industry, are generally supportive of ethanol and biofuels but have been convinced that more renewable energy will lead to higher food prices. This is the message that continues to be spread by the oil industry — despite the fact that is simply not true. Dozens of economic studies have shown little impact on food prices from renewable fuels. In addition, corn prices have gone down and ethanol production have stabilized,  yet, food prices continue to rise.


In 2008, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which  represents the world’s largest grocery makers, launched a smear campaign against the ethanol industry in an attempt to blame the rising cost of food on American ethanol producers. Since then, countless academic, economic, and government studies have disproven the food vs. fuel myth, concluding that Wall Street speculators, high oil prices and the high costs of manufacturing, packaging, and transporting all have far more impact than ethanol on the grocery prices that everyday Americans pay. Despite the facts, proven over and over again, that there is no substantial link between ethanol production and grocery prices, there are those who are actively trying to stoke illegitimate fears that demand for corn ethanol will somehow drive up food prices.


I anticipate this argument will be re-energized this summer as prices for beef, pork, and poultry will increase.   While these increases are being caused by natural weather disasters and an epidemic of disease in the pork industry, the renewable fuel sector will get the blame. Those us of close to food and energy production see all too clearly how the food vs. fuel debate does not make sense, but what we may not see so clearly is how powerful a force it still is among the public and policy makers.


 Jean Ziegler, then the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called biofuels a “crime against humanity” in late 2007. A lot has changed in the world food situation and in renewable production since then, but the arguments of big oil have not. It is important that we in agriculture continue to support and promote the concept that farmers are capable of producing enough food and fuel and that food prices are impacted by many factors most of which have little or nothing to do with renewable fuels.

 By Gary Truitt