The question of ethanol and its role in the food crisis is one of the most divisive issues raging in the world today. Factory farm and food processing interests cry out for relief from higher grain prices while in the general population, consumers reeling from rising food costs and environmentalists questioning the benefits of corn ethanol are also raising their concerns. One important question remains unasked in the midst of all this: How low do agribusinesses want corn prices to go? If farm programs had set a price floor adjusted for inflation over the last three decades, many more sustainable family farms would be raising livestock rather than destructive factory farms and the idea of turning valuable food into fuel would seem dubious at best. Since we have no real price floor, corn prices could plummet below cost of production that would ironically then rejuvenate ethanol plants and expand factory farm livestock production while wiping out family farmers.
Within National Family Farm Coalition, the subject of ethanol has also provoked division, with some groups wanting an immediate end to all ethanol subsidies and others who believe biofuels offer some promise to our energy crisis. NFFC has an important role to play as one of the few farm organizations willing to question ethanol's benefits for farmers, while making sure our arguments are distinct from anti-ethanol agribusiness interests seeking a return to $2 cheap corn. Agribusiness's other big plan is to dismantle the Conservation Reserve Program, in a futile attempt to have us grow our way out of the food crisis.
In Washington, a major schism has arisen in the big Ag community, with the National Corn Growers Association, American Farm Bureau and pro-ethanol interests battling against their normal partners-in-crime, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and livestock interests like the National Cattlemen Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). The Bush Administration so far has sided with the pro-ethanol camp, with USDA attributing only 4 percent of food price increases to the increase in corn prices. Meanwhile, food processors and livestock corporations blame high corn prices and ethanol for shrinking their profits and cite a World Bank economist's estimates that 75 percent of the food price increase can be blamed on ethanol. The truth probably lies somewhat in between those numbers. Ethanol critics need to be wary before they jump aboard the anti-ethanol campaigns and let off the hook the real bad actors behind our food crisis.
In May 2008, it was revealed in a DC paper that the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) had hired Glover Park Group, a well-connected lobbying firm, to conduct a massive 6-month PR campaign to discredit ethanol and push for eliminating the Renewable Fuel Standards that call for 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022 and other ethanol subsidies. GMA members include Cargill, Coca-Cola, ConAgra and many more. The PR campaign would use anti-poverty, environmental and consumers groups to help "ring the alarm about diverting so much of our food to our fuel supplies." GMA, along with the American Meat Institute, Environmental Working Group and National Chicken Council, is also behind the "Food Before Fuel" lobbying campaign that in July 2008 conducted a press conference in Boston, Massachusetts featuring Representative James McGovern, Co-Chair of the House Hunger Caucus, denouncing ethanol mandates as behind the food crisis impacting so many hungry people in the world. Kraft Food also hired former longtime USDA economist Keith Collins to conduct a study showing 25-35 percent of food price increases were due to ethanol.
Other states are also taking initiative at the behest of agribusiness interests. In June 2008, Texas governor Rick Perry requested that the Environmental Protection Agency grant his state a partial waiver from the RFS mandates. Perry then met privately with EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson in July, prompting an outcry from farm state Senators who fired off a letter to EPA warning them about the consequences of having an undemocratic backroom deal decide such an important policy matter. It was also revealed that Perry flew to DC at the expense of Pilgrim Pride CEO Lonnie Pilgrim. The chicken tycoon also donated $25,000 to Perry's political committee about a month after the waiver request was made and $100,000 to the Republican Governors Association, chaired by Perry. The EPA is now expected to make a decision in August.
It's clear that those of us farmers who have questioned the viability of ethanol, both as a mechanism for raising commodity prices and helping us wean ourselves off foreign oil, need to be very clear in making our message distinct from the agribusiness interests who are busy coopting hunger and environmental groups. When corn was under $2 and wheat was under $3, we didn't hear much from the Grocery Manufacturers Association about how this was starving farmers and causing massive taxpayer bailouts to sustain the rural economy. When commodity prices collapse again, will the likes of Pilgrim's Pride and Coca-Cola lower the cost of food to reflect this fact?
Already, General Mills (makers of Yoplait yogurt and Cheerios) reported profits up 61 percent over the previous quarter. National Beef, one of the nation's largest beef processors, reported in July a whopping 42 percent increase in profits over the same time period in May. Thus, blaming higher commodity prices as the root of the food crisis means attention is shifted away from the real corporate profiteers making money off millions of hungry people. It is clear we can't count on these anti-ethanol interests to put their millions towards reviving a system of price supports and grain reserves so we could actually have stable markets that ensure people around the world have access to affordable food and ensure farmers can make a living without relying on taxpayer subsidies.
Understanding corn could be the key to social change that saves the planet and helps us create democratic communities and local food supplies. Or, left to the philosophy of corporations like ADM, Cargill, Monsanto and DuPont, ignorance and inaction will make corn, a gift of Mother Nature and ancient civilizations, a curse to destroy ecosystems around the world and add to the problem of global warming.
In recent years corn became a topic of concern thanks to the writing of Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine and his best-selling book, the Omnivores Dilemma (I am the featured corn farmer in this book.) The corn we're talking about is harvested as a grain, not the sweet corn for summer picnics. Ancient societies in Mesoamerica worshipped corn because it could be stored from year to year in reserves to prevent famine in case of crop failures. The natural co-evolution of corn (like wheat, rice, or soybeans in other civilizations) involved saving seed that seemed to exhibit the best characteristics for yield, adaptability, and usefulness.
The basic problem with corn and its companion crop, soybeans, is that they required destroying the natural prairie which allows for soil erosion. Also, these crops, using fossil fuel intensive techniques and fertilizer, can produce more simple protein, carbohydrates, and oil per unit of land and labor than any plants on the planet. They can be shipped almost anywhere and used for livestock feed, corn sweetners, vegetable oil, processed foods, industrial inputs and many other uses. Without proper government policy, the natural tendency of the "free market" is for these crops to be planted horizon to horizon in a virtual monocropping system. Another consequence is the tendency for intensive livestock production using corn and soybeans as livestock feed, rather than extensive production on family farms with soil conserving crop rotation and waste recycling.
In the United States, with its vast land resources including the deep rich prairie soils and cheap fossil fuel, the industrial revolution allowed the exploitation of these resources along with the productivity of crops like corn and soybeans to industrialize our food supply. Railroads, highways, refrigeration, and many forms of corporate-controlled technology created an abundance of food without most people recognizing the costs to society or the environment in the process. Despite many economic catastrophes through the years, it wasn't until the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that the federal government in Roosevelt's New Deal finally stepped in to remedy the inevitable problem of over-abundance--low commodity prices and soil and water degradation.
Giant agribusinesses who process and export food or who provide technical inputs to corn and soybean production would rather have the "free market" lead to overabundance because it improves their bottom line. Other corporations like cheap food to feed their workforce and to displace rural people to become members of that work force. This is why these corporations used their political power to end New Deal farm programs and usher in "globalization" under various free trade agreements like the WTO and NAFTA. Rather than requiring corporations to pay fair prices to farmers, recent farm bills substituted billions of taxpayer dollars paid to crop producers (subsidies) just to avoid a collapse of the farm economy. Globalization extended the process of industrialization, rural displacement and land degradation internationally. So while it seems that "subsidies" benefit farmers and cause over production, it's the corporations who benefit and actually require taxpayers to finance the destruction of diversified family farms around the world.
The democratic and environmental answer to the undemocratic free market is the concept of Food Sovereignty championed by the international movement of farmers, peasants, and farmworkers called La Via Campesina. Food Sovereignty requires democratic policy to assure fair prices to farmers and wages to farm workers, the avoidance of wasteful overproduction, control over cheap, low quality imports, provision of food security reserves, conservation of land, water, and biodiversity, social control over potentially disastrous technology such as genetic engineering, and facilitation of local food production.
The farm bills recently passed in the House and Senate and proposals from the Bush administration still enshrine the downward spiral of the global free market. There will be no price floor under commodities, no food security reserve, no control over cheap imported commodities for the industrial food and agrofuel system. Providing for conservation and local food system will be a difficult if not impossible task. But if we want our food to do what it's supposed to --- feed people, not greedy corporations --- we need to prioritize Food Sovereignty today.