Biofuel battle: Fact and fiction

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Despite a smear campaign launched against biofuels, Congress appears to be moving ahead on its goal to wean the U.S. off foreign oil addiction. As I'm writing this, a press conference is being held on Capitol Hill praising a bill that would increase the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). The bill is being supported by a wide range of groups that go well beyond agriculture.

That's good news considering the attacks on biofuel from the mainstream media and leaders who should know better.

Major articles appeared late last year attacking biofuels for rising food prices and cutting into food purchases for the hungry. CNBC's Becky Quick proclaimed, "The ethanol production push has raised demand for corn and pushed up food prices across the country without contributing much relief for gas hungry drivers, so why do we continue converting food to energy?•bCrLf A documentary, "King Corn,•bCrLf tracks the crop from planting to consumption and concludes it is to blame for all sorts of ills, including obesity. After all, don't we put corn sweetener into sodas and fatten cattle that are turned into fast food hamburgers? Apparently there is no discussion of demand for those products and the fact that someone must actually want them and pay for them before consuming them.  The UN's Jean Ziegler called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels because it is a "crime against humanity.•bCrLf Huh?

"What's really behind the food vs. fuel debate are the oil companies, who are against a higher Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), and the large livestock industry, primarily based out west, that wants $2 corn,•bCrLf says Mark Lambert, Communications Director with the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

The RFS, which took effect under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, is a policy that mandates more and more use of biofuel blended into gasoline to reduce energy dependence on foreign sources. It started with 4 billion gallons in calendar year 2006 and will nearly double to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. But America's ethanol industry will hit 7.5 billion gallons by year end. House and Senate leaders are reportedly discussing alternative language that would result in an Energy bill requiring 20.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2015, with 15 billion gallons produced from grains and 5.5 billion gallons of advanced (cellulosic) biofuels.  

Ethanol plants, and those under construction, need an increase in the RFS to create additional demand. With a glut of ethanol and oil approaching $100 a barrel, it would appear the higher RFS is a no-brainer.

Some would have you believe producing biofuels takes food out of the mouths of starving children in Africa. At least, that is what Ziegler claims. But the U.S. produced more corn last year than it had in the last 60 years. Corn exports are at record highs. That's just simple market response to higher demand.

Nowhere in the economic rulebook does it say farmers must forever produce corn and receive low prices for their efforts. These are the new rules of agriculture, and we're still learning how they work.

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