Ethanol's toll

Our view: Reduce mandated use of corn-based additive

July 31, 2008

For hundreds of Eastern Shore farmers and thousands of poultry plant workers there, ethanol is a dirty word these days. An energy bill passed by Congress last year requires that 9 billion gallons of ethanol be blended into gasoline in the 12 months beginning Sept. 1. It's part of an effort to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and lower energy prices. But there's a problem: Much of the ethanol is being produced from corn that would have been used to feed chickens. Demand from ethanol producers is pushing the price of corn so high that it's squeezing the profits and production of Maryland poultry producers and the farmers who raise chickens for them.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing a request that the ethanol requirement be dropped by half to 4.5 billion gallons to help rein in soaring feed and food costs. The local poultry industry is backing that proposal, and we believe the EPA should comply to allow time for a sober assessment of the long-term impact of ethanol production on food and fuel costs.

Early enthusiasm for ethanol has waned as some critics and analysts have questioned the net energy gain in producing ethanol from corn when the costs of oil-based farm fuels and fertilizers are added in. Tax credits for refiners and a tariff on ethanol imported from Brazil add up to an estimated $4 billion tax break for America's burgeoning ethanol industry. A quarter of the U.S. corn crop is now used for biofuels, and that share is expected to increase with the proposed federal increase in ethanol's use in fuels. Meanwhile, in some poor countries, climbing commodity prices have touched off food riots.

The Bush administration has argued that ethanol accounts for only 2 percent to 3 percent of the increase in global food prices, but others disagree.

Not surprisingly, Midwestern farmers and ethanol producers are urging the EPA not to lower the ethanol fuel requirement. They say high gasoline prices and speculators have played a bigger role in fast-rising food costs. But slowing the introduction of the ethanol requirement would offer some relief as Congress and energy innovators weigh a wider array of solutions to the challenge of expensive imported oil.

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