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Ray Schmitz Ethanol to have ripple effect on food production

By Ray Schmitz

The fact that corn is now a fuel is changing the face of agriculture and perhaps affecting the entire world in ways that are as yet impossible to measure.

The Freeman Forum hosted by the University of Minnesota focused on the issues surrounding this unprecedented movement of a food to a fuel, with the attendant rise in price.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and an author on sustainable economics was the featured speaker. Does this mean your corn-fed steak will cost more? Yes, but more significantly the people the Midwest corn growers feed around the world will pay higher prices for less and less corn. He said the ethanol needed to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank would feed a person for a year in the Third World. Already Mexico has seen tortilla prices rise as its producers of corn and maize raise prices to respond to the United States.

Obviously, $4 corn is good for farmers, but is taking land out of soybean production and withdrawal of CRP land to extend corn acres good in the long term? Nationally, the prediction is for some 14 million more acres in corn production this year.

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The Minnesota Corn Growers Association says that in the 1992 -96 period 386 million bushels of corn were exported; 2002-06, 610 million bushels; and 2012-16 predict a decline to 530 million bushels. But the share processed into ethanol grows from 21 million bushels in 1992-96. to a predicted 480 million bushels in 2012-2016. The amount exported will drop from 54 percent to 39 percent in that 20-year period. The national Corn Growers Association argues in written material available at the Forum that corn growers have and will continue to meet the needs of both food and fuel, particularly when distilled grains, a byproduct of ethanol production, is included in exports.

A panelist C. Ford Runge, writing in the March issue of Foreign Affairs, says that the poor will suffer if the United States continues to emphasize the production of corn for ethanol production. He argues that the "current government subsidy of ethanol as a fuel and the historic high prices for corn are sending shock waves through the food system.

"Inventories of corn will be at their lowest since 1995, a drought year, even though 2006 yielded the third-largest corp on record. Iowa may become a net corn importer."

Runge suggested that the collateral damage to U.S. beef and chicken producers are now being felt. Tyson Foods has recently been quoted decrying the increasing prices it is paying for feed.

G. David Tilman of the University, co-author of the recent publication on biofuel production from grasses noted that using other plants to make biofuels has the environmental benefits of rebuilding degraded soils, storing carbon and requires low input of energy. He suggest that changing the system to pay farmers not just to grow corn but to reduce energy, save land and build up soils would be better in the long term.

Dr. Brown reminded the audience that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but historically consumed one-third of the resources. China now consumes more of those resources, except for oil. What happens if the per-capita consumption of China catches up to the United States? If China’s 8 percent annual economic growth continues it will do so in 2031.

What if the world has 1.1 billion cars vs the 800 million today? Are we now pitting those 800 million auto owners against the 2 billion starving by using food as fuel. How many failing states does it take to equal a failing civilization, and how many starving in a county does it take to cause it to fail? And we know that failed states contribute to terrorism.

These were among the provocative questions asked by Dr. Brown and other presenters.

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Is it too late? They suggested not yet. But it is too late for incremental change. Drastic action is needed if we are going to modify the global warming crisis confronting us and in doing so eliminate the need for ever-increasing energy usage.

Remember that recycling one aluminum can saves over 90 percent of the energy used to make a new one, recycling one of the beverage cans consumed while watching the Vikings for three hours will save the electricity needed to run the TV.

Ray Schmitz is a longtime Rochester resident and served as the Olmsted County attorney from 1982 until 2007.

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