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Is Feeding the Hungry More Important than Staying Obese and Diseased?

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Senate Republicans, including John McCain, are asking the EPA to suspend plans to increase corn ethanol production for biofuels because of rising food prices [1].

Setting aside this apparent and sudden desire to regulate a free market and display concern for the poor coming from the Republicans, let’s just look at how the U.S. corn crop is currently used.

Only 11.7% [2] of the U.S. crop is consumed in the U.S. as “food” – mostly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners (6.5%) used in soft drinks and linked to obesity and other diseases and also in the form of beverage alcohol (1.2%) used in hard drinks and linked, obviously, to alcoholism.

Ethanol production accounts for 18.5% of the U.S. crop. Exports (helping to fee the rest of the world) account for 19.3%.

So far, that totals to less than half of corn production. Where does the other 50.3% go?

We feed the rest to animals. Unfortunately, beef cattle are not well-adapted for digesting corn—it tends to cause them health problems [3], necessitating the use of antibiotics which, in turn, find their way into our food supply, making new diseases more antibiotic-resistant. While fatter beef may taste better to some, it has been linked to heart disease and stroke.

It should be a no-brainer: Should Americans give up obesity, heart disease, strokes and other chronic inflammatory diseases in order to feed the world’s poor? It should especially be a no-brainer if, at the same time, we can give up one of our largest sources of greenhouse gasses (methane from feedlots) and water table pollution (waste from feedlots).

But, it turns out, we don’t even have to give up our precious juicy burgers and cokes/pepsis to feed the world’s poor because the same corn can be used for both ethanol production and cattle feed. Ethanol production produces “distiller’s grain” as a by-product which can be re-used as animal feed and apparently is healthier for the animals.

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So, we could easily feed the world’s poor and still maintain the high standard of illness and health care expense we’ve become accustomed to. And, if worse came to worse, we might even choose to produce a healthier food supply for ourselves to save a little more of the grain for export, help reduce America’s trade deficit and lower health care costs.

Why then, are the Republicans opposing expansion of ethanol production and attempting to frame the debate as alternative energy vs. world hunger? As with all frames, this frame is significant because of what it excludes from view— mainly all the industries that profit from the hugely dysfunctional status quo. I’ll leave the naming of those industries as an exercise for the reader.

Another important factor to be aware of in the debate over ethanol production is that current research is very close to having a scalable process for producing ethanol from switchgrass [4], corn stalks, wood and every other plant material containing cellulose. There is every indication that such technology will be very important in the decades to come and that it will no longer be necessary to ferment food for ethanol at all—relying instead on corn shucks, stalks, straw, hay, pulp, etc. So, it makes sense to grow the market for ethanol today to provide incentives and markets for this coming technology.

But all that is too complicated for modern sound-bite framing. So, I recommend using this simple frame when discussing ethanol production: Is Feeding the Hungry More Important than Staying Obese and Diseased?

Our answer to that question could potentially transform society forever, and for the better.

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Marc Baber develops websites and proudly drives a 2000 Chevy Metro, using 10% ethanol fuel from Sequential Biofuels in Eugene, Oregon.

[1] “Republicans target ethanol mandate”, Matthew Perrone, Associated Press/Eugene Register-Guard, May 6, 2008.

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Marcus B is a free-lance consultant, writer, website developer and activist for election reform.

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