Corn Subsidies Make No Sense

Our Senators say stop burning food; it's time for House members to get it as well

In the face of budget deficits, food price inflation in this country and food riots in Mexico over the price of corn, the U.S. Senate has voted to stop paying agribusiness interests a subsidy to burn food.

The senators, including Tennessee's Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, no longer see the wisdom of subsidizing corn when it closed last week at $6.60 a bushel. In modern times $4 corn has been considered nirvana by corn farmers. Did it make sense to pay to have 40 percent of our corn production converted to ethanol while we imposed a 45 cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane? And give producers a 54 cent a gallon subsidy? Totaling $6 billion?

Too often our representatives have deferred agricultural policy to so-called "farm states," which contain huge factory farming operations. But they need to realize that the future of our food supply and our quality of life may depend on our ability to take care of ourselves.

Perhaps the Senate vote Friday to end ethanol subsidies was merely symbolic. But maybe it is a symbol of a change in attitude among our delegation (and others) to pay more attention to how we produce food and who does it. As consumers we need to pay attention and stop letting agribusiness control our food supply without our knowledge or participation.

Ethanol is a fuel source invented and continued by pandering presidential candidates in the Iowa caucuses every four years and lobbying by Archer Daniels Midland. Unfortunately, the Senate vote will be meaningless unless the U.S. House will agree as well—unlikely to happen. That's because removing the tax subsidy is a "tax increase" as defined by Grover Norquist and the anti-tax lobbyists who have the Tea Party House members under their thumb.

You may applaud members of Congress for being staunch in their pledge not to raise taxes. But it turns out raising taxes has several meanings. Including leaving cushy loopholes that benefit special-interest groups like ethanol industries. Is that what we mean by being anti-tax increases? When you stop giving an industry billions of dollars in subsidies it's a tax increase? If so, we need to reconsider supporting Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform. He ought to call it Americans for No Tax Reform. What other cushy loopholes are being preserved under the rubric of anti-tax increases?

Ethanol is a legitimate fuel source that ought to be encouraged. But it needs to be made from non-food products grown on land too poor or unsuitable for food production. Wood chips. Switchgrass. The research effort going on by the University of Tennessee to use such products to produce ethanol ought to be encouraged. Removing the tariff on Brazilian ethanol allows the importation of the product made from sugar cane. Sugar burns easier and is "greener" as a source of ethanol. And Brazil has millions of acres of land suitable for sugar cane production. Brazil is no longer dependent on gasoline. Ethanol rules and has for over a decade.

You can find few products in the supermarket these days that do not contain fructose. It's made from corn. That's why corn prices are a driver of higher food prices. Corn is also a major driver of our exports, corn sales around the world help offset our balance of trade problems. Using it for fuel is just shortsighted and a distortion of the market.

We don't have a lot of good corn land in East Tennessee. The flat bottom land has mostly been covered by TVA lakes. But we grow some. What we do have is rolling countryside suitable for growing grass, including switchgrass, and millions of acres of forest land capable of producing wood chips.

Our rolling grassland can produce grass-fed cattle, small farms that take their production directly to the consumer (on Market Square and other places around town), and specialty products to compete with factory farms.

Encourage our House members to support ending ethanol subsidies. It's a good thing to do and you will see some relief at the grocery store.