The Devil Is in the (DDGS) Details

In Biofuels, Distillers Grains, Ethanol, Food vs Fuel by Cathryn

In yet another gross simplification of a complex situation, a media uproar has given new life to the food versus fuel debate of 2008. A throwback to election years past, this perennial panic-producing paradox invades our homes yet again coaxing us to join the fracas. It seems simple. Choose how the nation’s corn crop should be used.

Everyone scream an answer at the top of your terror-stricken lungs right now. As if generating mass thirst could somehow alleviate the effects of a drought…

Truth be told, with the exception of bio-engineered drought-resistant seeds, little does. Oversimplifying the problem and marching forward with blinders on to obscure any unnecessary, albeit factual and relevant factors, will only land us in a forest of unintended consequences.

Simply, there is nothing simple about corn use. In a piece on National Public Radio this morning, Lon Johnson, a feed coop manager from Minnesota, drove the complexity of the situation on the ground home while many drove to work. Johnson, who deals with the intricate relationship between price, availability and ethanol daily, explained how a halt in ethanol production locally affects his business, producing feed for cattle, chickens and other livestock.

“It doesn’t make it any easier for us because maybe we can buy our corn 20 cents a bushel cheaper, but it costs me 20 bucks more because we bought corn distillers from the ethanol plant. That’s one of the things people a lot of times keep forgetting with an ethanol plant. Even though they’re using a lot of corn, they’re still putting a lot of feed back into the market. Food versus fuel? I think we need ’em both.”

Does the complexity of the situation make it any less important for the farmers, ranchers and ethanol plant investors who are all suffering through this hot, dry summer? Of course not. Nor does it make it less relevant for a public looking for answers in uncertain times.

Looking at the detail, whether it be the reintroduction of corn to the livestock from the feed market or the role ethanol plays in lowering fuel costs, does allow assessment of the situation in a comprehensive, accurate manner.

Sometimes, the correct answer turns out to be “all of the above.” Instead of being pushed to pick an arbitrary side of an oversimplified argument, take a cue from Johnson. Answer C, “we need ‘em both.”