Food AND Fuel


Farmers don’t deserve all the credit. Mother Nature blessed us with the soil, sun, and rain. The people who supply the seeds, fertilizers, and equipment also have helped make U.S. agriculture the most productive in the world. This collection of talent is really the greatest natural resource in American agriculture.

Just a few generations ago, the same land we cultivate today produced only a fraction of what it does now. Not only do our farms yield more, but they also require less labor, fuel, and fertilizer to produce each bushel. On my farm, soil erosion has drastically been reduced. There is no reason to think that this increase in productivity will stop. It may actually be accelerating.

That’s what makes the so-called food-versus-fuel debate so frustrating: It presents a false choice. We don’t have to pick one or the other. We can have both.

Every year I’m amazed at the new technology that becomes available to use on my farm. It’s also a little scary if you consider that, traditionally, the biggest problem for American farmers is producing too much! High yields don’t mean more income if the price of the crop falls because of oversupply. Even though farmers have worked hard to find new uses and markets for this extra yield, the price of corn, adjusted for inflation, has fallen 75 percent since 1974. For decades, the need to produce less rather than more has dominated U.S. farm policy, with the hope of boosting commodity prices. We all remember stories and jokes about farmers “paid” not to produce.

Almost every day it is possible to read another story blaming ethanol for higher food prices or some other malady. Yes, using corn to make fuel will raise the price of corn. That is exactly why farmers have invested so heavily in ethanol production. Higher corn prices can raise the price of food, but consider there’s less than a dime’s worth of corn in a box of cereal or six-pack of cola. Affordable food is always a concern for the world’s poor, but political and social issues are a far greater problem than price. Cheap grain is not a solution to world hunger–even US aid programs that give away food are routinely criticized for their effect on local agricultural production and economies.

The “food or fuel” debate often centers on the various incentives given to the ethanol manufacturers. There is no question that without incentives ethanol production in this country would consume less corn. Should public policy support and even subsidize fuels produced from crops? It is a complex issue, but consider these simple facts: The world demands more energy every year. Oil is becoming more difficult and expensive to acquire. Our ability to make energy from bio-fuels is steadily improving.

The United States consumes over 380 million gallons of gasoline per day. That is a huge quantity compared to our daily production of about 18 million gallons of ethanol. But ethanol production has almost doubled in just the last three years and more capacity is now under construction. Imagine what would happen to the price and availability of gasoline if those 18 million gallons of ethanol were to disappear.

The economic future of the United States relies on a dependable supply of energy. We can try to influence sovereign nations to continue to ship us petroleum, and hope the tankers can navigate to our ports. That must be part of our national energy policy. But we can’t ignore the talented people who have made American agriculture so incredibly productive – they are one of our country’s greatest resources.

They make it possible to sidestep the false choice of food or fuel and embrace the new reality of food and fuel.

John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck operates a corn and soybean farm in western Champaign County, Illinois. He served on the Global Farmer Network Board of Directors, and is a former Chair. John currently serves as Chairman and President of the GROWMARK Board of Directors-a farm supply and marketing cooperative that operates principally in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ontario.

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