Getting Blamed for Record Exports

February 28, 2011

Earlier this month, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that U.S. farm exports reached an all-time high of $116 billion in 2010.

“Export sales surged…in bulk commodities, which increased 19 percent to $47.2 billion,” he noted.

This is great news for America, Vilsack said, because agricultural exports drive economic activity and create jobs.

“Every $1 billion in agricultural exports supports 8,000 American jobs, which means agricultural exports supported nearly 1 million jobs in 2010,” he explained.

Unfortunately, while Vilsack was spreading good news, a few opportunists were selling a completely different story, pointing to hunger overseas, and blaming American farmers for it.

Their argument goes something like this. America uses some of its corn for ethanol, and corn used for fuel can’t be used for corn flakes. So the hunger and elevated commodity prices fueling riots overseas must be ethanol’s fault.

Never mind the fact that current food shortages overseas were caused by weather problems and short crops in other countries, or that global population growth and wealth expansion, not biofuel production, has placed the real strain on food supplies.

Never mind the fact we’re exporting a record amount of food, or that the corn for ethanol is a different variety than what’s used for corn flakes.

And, never mind the fact that America has so much excess food that experts estimate 25 to 50 percent goes to waste.

Instead, let’s focus on the fact that—as Erik Osmon of Bushmills Ethanol in Minnesota pointed out—ethanol production doesn’t even take food or animal feed out of the food chain.

“We remove the starch from the plant to create ethanol, but the oil and protein from the corn is still sold for food,” he explained. “That’s why the food versus fuel debate is so hollow.”

These facts are of little relevance to the handful of think tanks penning op-eds for big city newspapers and making the rounds on cable news shows in hopes of upending the U.S. ethanol industry.

But the facts should be relevant to political leaders and media outlets that are obligated to challenge the fictional arguments that have been embraced as gospel by some.

Keep in mind, these same think tanks were attacking farm policy just a few years ago for making global food supplies too plentiful and food prices too cheap. Talk about a yo-yo.

The country has too much at stake—including millions of jobs and one of the few bright spots in the country’s trade portfolio—to tear down its agricultural base like some are advocating.

As Wesley Clark, the former Army General and NATO commander who is a big ethanol proponent, recently wrote in an op-ed: “As a new Congress debates America’s future, and the White House builds on a promising State of the Union speech, they should think of the 210,000 farms that produce 80 percent of the country’s agricultural output as a thin green line standing between prosperity and disaster.”