Ethanol series suffered from lack of balance and industry sources

Guest Editorial or Op/Ed for the Lincoln Journal Star. (It ran Oct. 2, 2008: click here.)

By Don Hutchens

Don Hutchens of Lincoln is Executive Director of the Nebraska Corn Board. The Nebraska Corn Board represents the interests of the state’s 26,000 corn farmers.

Your front page story in Monday’s (09/29/08) paper “Food vs. Fuel: Is ethanol to blame for rising food prices?”, authored by a University of Nebraska Journalism student on behalf of the Journal left many questioning why a family faced with higher food costs would travel from Lincoln to Chicago to buy tortillas in bulk. First of all, the math was incorrect, as presented in the story. We contacted the supplier in Chicago and found that in fact tortillas are cheaper (2.4 cents per tortilla vs. 6.2 cents here in Lincoln), the article gave you the impression the family was buying tortillas at over 40 cents per tortilla. Secondly, there had to be serious omission of other facts regarding why a family would drive over a thousand miles, invest eighteen hours of drive time and hundreds of dollars to save $18.24 by buying tortillas in Chicago vs. Lincoln. The story only gave one reason for the trip and that was to buy tortillas cheaper.

A quick trip to the supermarket proves that food prices are higher today than a year or two ago, but good research will not lead you to the conclusion that it is corn/ethanol that has been the culprit of those increased food costs. Land grant universities, the Federal Reserve Bank, and other independent reports show that energy costs have twice the impact than higher commodity prices have. Stop and think that when a food product travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to supermarket, following energy intensive processing and packaging, where the real increase comes from.

Higher grain prices will impact food products, but less than 10% of the U.S. corn supply goes directly to food products like cereal, or canned goods. The critical factor to digest is, what really has impacted the price of corn, wheat and soybeans over the last two years, and the facts will again point out that weather, world demand, low value of the dollar and speculative futures trading has had a much greater impact on price than biofuels development.

  • A few facts that could have contributed to the Food and Fuel story:
  • In 2007 corn production increased by 24% from the year before and 17.5% of the corn crop was used for actual ethanol production.
  • Year ending stocks for corn are projected to remain over a billion bushels surplus, according to USDA.
  • Corn exports are at record levels; the U.S. exported more corn than we used for ethanol during 2007.
  • Corn, wheat, and soybean yields are steadily increasing thanks to strong demand, biotechnology, and farming practices.
  • Food shortages around the globe have more to do with distribution issues, resistance to biotechnology and the use of food as power, than with supply.
  • Rising commodity prices actually create greater opportunity for third world agrarian economies as their farmers have greater opportunities to produce grains for a profit.
  • As America’s economy is in turmoil, consider that we are sending more than one billion dollars per day to other nations, just to satisfy our thirst for oil.
  • The use of biofuels produced here in the U.S. has reduced fuel cost to the consumer by an average of 15%.

I appreciate the efforts of the journalism students investing in the year long process of reporting on these topics, but more care in good research would be advisable. Getting the facts straight and balanced journalism will serve as a better educational tool, as would taking the time to talk directly to people involved in the industry being reported upon. I hope the next year-long project looks at what Nebraska agriculture-crops, livestock and renewable energy brings to our state’s economy. Corn alone is a $7 billion industry.

In regard to the rest of the series that included water use of corn and ethanol, along with politics and policies, there is always more to the story. The story on water did not include a visit with a corn producer who is using University-recommended water efficiency measures and didn’t say that ethanol plants recycle much of the water they use. (Nor did it mention that it takes 150 gallons of water to produce one copy of an average Sunday newspaper!)

More information on what impact ethanol brings to our energy independence should have been included. It is unfortunate for the states of Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas that more domestic ethanol wasn’t part of their fuel mix because some areas are now looking at gas prices as high as $8.00/gallon following the aftermath of the hurricanes. Without renewable energy, we are all left with more of what we have today. And that is dependence on the Middle East and OPEC vs. developing and investing in our own wind, solar, thermal and yes, biofuels industries. Oil companys’ investments in lobbying and their profit margins make them a formidable opponent when it comes to getting the truth out about other forms of energy.

More facts on food and fuel, water use and Kernels of Truth can be found at www.nebraskacorn.org or www.ncga.com.

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