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Finding the solutions to feed, fuel the world

Commentary for Feedstuffs newspaper; March 7, 2011

By Don Hutchens

Don Hutchens is Executive Director for the Nebraska Corn Board, which represents 26,000 corn farmers in Nebraska. He is a former Assistant Director and Director of Ag in Nebraska and is actively involved in farming and livestock feeding.

In a recent viewpoint (Feedstuffs, Jan. 31), Dennis Avery said: “The U.S. in fact, could ease the current global food price spike with one administrative action: limiting the amount of domestic corn that gets turned into ethanol.” For someone who seems to be so worldly and knowledgeable, Mr. Avery is naive and simplistic to think that the world food solution could be so easy.

He also goes on to say, “America’s huge corn crop is diverted from food and feed into an ultra-costly auto fuel that gives consumers poorer mileage even as it drives up their food costs.” Obviously Mr. Avery has not purchased any $3.49 gasoline of late. I have been enjoying filling my flex fuel Chevy Avalanche with E85 (85 percent ethanol) for $2.69 (I lose 2 miles to the gallon uses the E-85). Along with the cost savings, I relish the fact the 13 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2010 displaced the gasoline refined from 445 million barrels of crude oil. This reduction in oil imports saved the U.S. economy $34 billion dollars.

Of course the oil industry does not live on bread alone considering the tax breaks, oil depletion allowances, incentives, etc., that come to, on average, about $20 billion worth of subsidies.

Between the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the oil lobby, corn ethanol has been a steady and consistent target.

However, events of the last few weeks in the Middle East should also serve as a wake-up call to those who seem to find joy in bashing corn and ethanol. It’s not the fundamentals in the markets that sent crude soaring to $100 per barrel – but just the thought of a disruption. Now that will impact food prices and just about everything else just as it did in 2007-08.

It’s also important to remember that the U.S. ethanol industry utilizes just 3 percent of the global grain supply – and returns millions of tons of distillers grains in the process, the prices of which are reported in the back of every edition of Feedstuffs and, according to my estimation, provide a very good feeding value.

Back to world hunger and food prices. Yes there may be in an increase in food prices for many different reasons over the next year. Everything from weather to population growth (206,000 more people per day), market speculators and political conflicts around the world just to name a few.

U.S. farmers and livestock producers strive to answer that challenge by producing more on fewer acres, using less water, reducing erosion and using less energy – some of the very high-yield farming Mr. Avery himself promotes frequently. However, farmers aren’t the only ones being more efficient. The cattle and hog industries are doing the same, and even ethanol producers are using less energy and less water while producing more ethanol from the same number of bushels.

Avery attributed food riots and a 50 percent increase in food prices in 2008 to…yes, you guessed, it corn/ethanol.

There is an arm long list of publications that took a serious look at this issue and clearly refute those claims and instead lay a majority of the credit where it belongs: high energy (oil) costs.

Let’s step back and take a look at what more profit in agriculture and a challenge to produce more brings to the table. I bet it brings more meat, more grain, more fiber and even more renewable energy.

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