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Words of the Day: Food and Fuel

August 01, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Fellow Minnesotans emotionally and financially tied to the food industry are growing restless as drought conditions worsen across much of the United States while Congress appears in no hurry to pass multi-year farm and food legislation.

Words fly fast and furious from various groups. Points are made and counterpoints are exchanged. Public policy is blamed for much that is wrong. And yet, the people most engaged in farm, food and feeding policy debates are talking right past each other.

The U.S. House of Representatives is still pondering when to act on the so-called “Farm Bill,” the omnibus farm, food, trade and environment legislation that establishes U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for the next several years. The current programs are set to expire with the current federal fiscal year on September 31.

Agriculture groups want Congress to act on the Farm Bill before going on an August recess. It might take such a break for members of Congress to reconnect with people. Recent Minnesota experiences suggest these messages from farmers and families will be contradictory at best.

Livestock and poultry groups have asked the Obama administration to waive the Renewable Fuels Standard for the coming year, according to Leslie Brooks-Suzukamo at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In theory, such a waiver could make up to five billion bushels of corn now going to ethanol production plants available for feed uses, and would certainly drop the price of corn and other commodities for other users.

Bio-fuels advocates in Minnesota and nationally counter by noting that the ethanol industry has a stockpile of surplus production on hand, which will lessen the amount of production needed in the coming year, and that the ethanol plants in turn produce high protein feed ingredients for the livestock and poultry farms.

Thus we have conflicting words from a divided agriculture. On top of that, there is no clear evidence that consumers would benefit from a retreat from U.S. bio-fuel use. No one as yet has projected how food cost savings might offset higher fuel costs if imported petroleum replaced the 10 percent of our fuel tanks’ capacity now supplied by ethanol.

Meanwhile, researchers for U.S. PIRG, the public interest research group, recently passed through Minneapolis to criticize past and future farm bills for the way agriculture is subsidized, who gets the subsidies, and the inappropriate way in which certain crops benefit while healthy fruit and vegetable crops are ignored.

Authors Laura Etherton, Mike Russo and Nasima Hossain make valid points that farm subsidies mostly benefit a small percentage of America’s largest farmers. Researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) stress this point annually as well.

At the same time, the report entitled Apples to Twinkies 2012: Comparing Taxpayer Subsidies for Fresh Produce and Junk Food, oversimplifies the big picture; farm programs for corn and soybeans are not “junk food subsidies” even though corn syrup, corn starch, high fructose corn syrup and soy oils can be used to make what food critics call junk food.

Too little attention is being paid to food assistance needs at home and abroad. Drought, monetary problems coming from Europe and slowing economies around the world will drive up food prices and force the least-obese among world residents to cinch their belts even tighter. 

Far from our farms, conservative economic policy aimed at shrinking the public sector is adding to food assistance needs. cited economic data showing public sector job losses stalling the U.S. recovery, putting more pressure on programs that feed those in need. 

It cited Moody’s research projecting that 15,000 additional state employment cuts were coming this year while between 150,000 and 175,000 local government jobs would be lost, adding to the more than 600,000 former public sector employees who have lost jobs since the 2009.

Firefighters, police officers, school teachers and other public servants now being shoved out the door will either have food aid needs of their own or will shift those needs to the private sector workers they displace.

The linkage between jobs and food security is almost lost in the current discussions of farm and feeding programs and food systems. But it is not totally ignored. That becomes clear in the summer edition of Macalester Today magazine published at Macalester College.

Several alumni and students either write or are profiled about their endeavors with organic agriculture development and urban farming programs in south Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

One especially important article is a cautious look at world food supplies and pressing needs. It is an excerpt from The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food by Josh Schonwald (’93) in which he explains the race food scientists are waging with global population.

“Savoring the slowest food and foraging for wild asparagus shouldn’t be viewed as at odds with championing lab-engineered vitamin-A enhanced rice that could save children from blindness,” he writes.

We need Congress to act on the farm bill. None of us may like the final bill, but we need the science, the food assistance, the drought protection and everything else it includes.

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