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Guest Editorial: Ethanol is Not the Problem
by U.S. Senator Tim Johnson

Record energy costs and rising food prices are taking a painful toll on consumers' pocketbooks. Fuel and food are basic necessities, and there is a limit to how much Americans can tighten up their family budgets. As Congress considers how to turn the U.S. economy around, some suggest the choice we must make is to surrender our commitment to renewable fuels such as ethanol. That would be a mistake, costing Americans dearly by squandering our long-term economic and national security, while doing little to affect the food supply or prices.

Those calling for biofuels to take a back seat in our energy plan have waged a relentless campaign of misinformation, blaming U.S. policies in support of ethanol and biodiesel for inflation in the grocery aisle. Frightening Americans by arguing that ethanol made from corn is somehow taking food from the world's hungry might be sensational, but it is not supported by the facts.
Ed Lazear, chairman of President Bush's council of economic advisers, estimates that ethanol has accounted for just 2 percent or 3 percent of the overall increase in global food prices. The reason, he recently explained, is that while ethanol has increased corn prices about 33 percent, corn accounts for only 30 percent of all grain, and grain is only 20 percent of all food.
Lazear noted that there has been 4.5 percent food price inflation in the United States this year. Without ethanol, he said food prices still would have gone up 4.25 percent.

The primary factors contributing to food price increases today are triple-digit oil prices, burgeoning demand for richer diets in China and India, and weather-related disasters. Consider these examples of how petroleum prices impact the production, processing, distribution, mrketing, and price of food items.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the price of nitrogen fertilizer (which is made with natural gas) is up a record 168 percent since 2000, making it considerably more expensive for farmers to grow crops. Additionally, the American Trucking Association says record diesel prices have multiplied the costs to plant and harvest crops, and ship food products to the retail level – dramatically increasing the price of food. It now costs 0 in fuel just to deliver grapefruit from Florida to Washington, DC, up 8 in the last twelve months.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City reports that food prices have historically surged during times of high crude oil prices, and high energy prices tend to quickly transfer to higher retail food prices. In fact, retail prices rise 0.52 percent for every 1 percent rise in energy prices. As a result, a 10 percent gain in energy prices could contribute 5.2 percent to retail food prices.
Further, as oil prices hit new record highs – far in excess of 0 per barrel – the United States transfers more than billion per day to foreign oil suppliers, effectively paying a tax that hurts every sector of the American economy.

There is little doubt that the economy is slowing and the effects of high food and fuel prices are forcing many to rebalance their family budgets. We have choices to make to get our economy back on track and tackle runaway energy prices. We can continue our status-quo dependence on expensive fossil fuel, or seek cost-effective, clean burning, homegrown alternatives. There is broad, bipartisan consensus in Congress that the cost of the status-quo far exceeds the price of developing alternatives to wean the United States of its risky addiction to foreign oil.

And despite the attack campaign against ethanol in the media, my colleagues and I in Congress are dedicated to pursuing a balanced energy security policy that continues to support ethanol and biodiesel, because the United States cannot import its way out of our energy security problem.
Unlike some alternative energy options, ethanol is readily available now – and it is already making a difference for consumers. Researchers at Iowa State University estimate that gas prices in the United States would be {josaddphp:departments.php}.29 to {josaddphp:departments.php}.40 higher per gallon if we were not extending the fuel supply with ethanol.

As far as food prices are concerned, calls to abandon corn-based ethanol are misguided exploitations that do not provide any meaningful relief in the grocery aisle. Our nation would be much better served by adopting a new farm bill, ensuring a safe and stable supply of domestic food and international food aid for years to come, and by taking further steps to reduce the use of petroleum, increase our support for renewable fuels, and ensure energy conservation.

Tim Johnson is the senior senator from South Dakota. He currently serves on the Appropriations Committee, Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee.

 
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The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industryís hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanolís carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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