Whitesburg KY

Using our corn to feed our cars



Record oil prices. The cost of food spiraling across continents. Globalization roiling, in some cases almost destroying historic local agriculture. Hunger mounting, food riots erupting worldwide – in 34 nations at latest count.

Think about all that. And then behold the U.S. Congress, producing a $300 billion farm bill that barely curbs the federal government’s giveaways to bigtime commodity producers.

Indeed, the bill perpetuates billions of subsidy dollars to corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton farm interests, with 52 percent of the money, ironically, going into just 22 congressional districts.

The legislation barely shaves the edge off Washington’s big subsidies for corn-based ethanol. How misguided can we get? Ethanol processing requires huge amounts of energy, largely coal, thus erasing gains from the fuel’s lower carbon impact. Plus it is fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive, and extremely water-consumptive in production.

Even more serious, we’re discovering that using corn to feed cars instead of people is a major factor in forcing up prices for the commodity here and abroad. Americans who can barely afford groceries are victimized.

Worse, we contribute to deadly food inflation in a world in which close to 1 billion people already suffer from hunger. Even the price rising on just one crop can stimulate speculation and demand for others. If Congress continues its billions of dollars a year in direct payments to farmers, it’s all but sure to subvert market forces that might lower commodity prices.

And the impact will occur when world food markets are already under pressure from the global oil price surge and a voracious appetite for more food from such nations as China, where – now emulating us – consumers’ rising appetite for beef and pork requires huge amounts of grain production.

As a nation, we take pride in our humanitarian aid to distressed peoples, especially those of the developing world. World Bank President Robert Zoellick is calling for a “New Deal for Global Food Policy” to meet the current food crisis, including $500 million from donor governments. But the farm bill, by buckling under to the farm producers’ powerful Washington lobby, arguably sustains or lifts food prices and worsens conditions for people that our humanitarian aid – from Haiti to Morocco to Bangladesh – could well benefit.

How about a different course? The current global food crisis “could be a window of opportunity for governments to relaunch the small-farming sector and traditional farming,” Fernando Soto of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization tells The Associated Press. Or according to Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, “We need a revolution in small-plot agriculture to allow farmers to grow the food they need to eat and to grow high-value crops they can sell on the market to lift themselves out of poverty.”

Clearly it’s not time to make all agriculture local. It’s important that a reasonable flow of major commodities and selected specialty foods continue internationally. Certainly the world wants to see an end to export bans, such as those on rice, that are causing real misery in grainshort Asian countries right now.

But simultaneously, why not lend encouragement to smallscale farming, especially to create more agricultural self-sufficiency around the large urban areas into which world population is pouring?

Let’s take notice: As oil prices continue their inexorable upward climb, longer-distance food transport will become an increasingly expensive – and chancy – practice. The energy and security costs alone suggest shifting, wherever it’s possible, to more local and regional agriculture.

In the words of Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., pioneer proponent of a new metro-region oriented farm policy, the subsidies for the big producers should be shifted – to “use that money to build sustainable agriculture, create a farmer’s market in every community, help farmers protect our land and water, preserve our viewsheds, foster land banks and control erosion.”

By extension, this new age of rapidly escalating energy prices and potentially imperiled food supplies suggests we all think more about very local agriculture – even home vegetable plots akin to the “victory gardens” of World War II.

There’s little doubt that the current food inflation and shortage pattern will prompt people around the globe to move toward very local food self-sufficiency. Maybe, before it’s too late, we Americans should too. And to remember: Local food tends to be more nutritious, requires less energy-consumptive packing and refrigeration, and recirculates money locally instead of exporting it to outside suppliers.

Think about a federal farm bill that encouraged that trend – instead of mega-supports for bigtime farmers and features such as a $93 million write-off for thoroughbred racehorse owners.

We Americans could actually be more thoughtful world citizens and smarter producer-consumers at the same time. How about it?

Neal Peirce’s e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

©2008 Washington Post Writers

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