The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Vilsack defends biofuels to Chicago Council

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a gathering of international agricultural development activists Tuesday that U.S. biofuels should not blamed for most of the increases in food prices in recent years.

"With respect to food prices, corn‐based ethanol does not deserve the scapegoat reputation that folks often attempt to assign it," Vilsack told a conference sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "During the great run‐up in food and commodity prices in 2007 and 2008, biofuel production played only a minor role – accounting for about 10 percent of the total increase in global prices."

The Chicago Council issued a report this week that said Congress and the Obama administration should consider ending government support for biofuels, and sponsored a conference that featured many speakers who have urged Congress and the administration to increase funding for global food security programs and cut back on U.S. farm subsidies.

“The U.S., like many countries, looks to biofuels as one tool in our efforts to confront the triple challenges of assuring food security, adequate energy supplies, and mitigation of the impacts of climate change But — particularly in the international community — a number of myths pervade discussions of our biofuels policy," Vilsack said, according to his prepared remarks.

The secretary also noted that about a third of the grains that go into ethanol production come out as dried distillers grains that are used to feed livestock. The concern that U.S. biofuels production is causing changes to international land use “has also recently been shown false,” Vilsack said, citing a study released by Michigan State University showing that U.S. biofuel production through 2007 “probably has not induced any indirect land use change.”

Vilsack also noted that biofuel production has not significantly changed U.S. corn exports, but also said the Obama administration is promoting the use of non-food feedstock for biofuel production.

On the issue of world food supplies, Vilsack said the administration is opposed to export bans and hoarding, and believes nations should embrace trade and the free movement of food supplies.

Vilsack also said USDA is helping the U.S. Agency for International Development’s “Feed the Future” initiative by helping developing countries improve their statistical information gathering, and is engaged in a wide-ranging research agenda of benefit to developing countries on a variety of projects:
  • Testing bean germplasm for heat/drought tolerance and disease resistance. USA Agricultural Research Service plant geneticists are partnering with Cornell University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Puerto Rico, and researchers in Angola to look for heat- and drought-tolerance in beans including red, pinto, navy, kidney and black beans that may be of particular benefit to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
  • Combating stem rust in partnership with The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative. USDA — through ARS — has been playing a key role in the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative to systematically reduce the world’s vulnerability to stem, yellow, and leaf rusts of wheat including for Ug99, the most virulent race of the stem rust fungus yet to emerge.
  • Developing stress-resistant sorghum through a project with Purdue University and cooperation with several African countries, including Tanzania.
  • Improving cacao in West Africa through a Pennsylvania State University project which is exploring fundamental mechanisms of various traits important to the growth and cultivation.
  • Addressing post‐harvest availability of key crops in Ghana.