Soaring grain and fuel prices have placed a strain on nearly every segment of agriculture.

Even more frustrating is the fact that many consumers believe farmers and ranchers are at least partially responsible for rising food prices.

In recent weeks, various media outlets have changed their tune about ethanol. Originally, ethanol was championed as a sustainable source of energy that could help America reduce its dependence on foreign oil imports. But once it became clear that ethanol made from corn could consume up to one-third of America’s crop, and that ethanol demand for corn was helping to boost corn prices, many stories were published and broadcast claiming ethanol was to blame for rising food prices.

This media do-si-do just happened to occur when Congress was running its last laps on the farm bill marathon, which provided even more fodder for media pundits and talking heads. The thought of providing subsidies to corn and soybean farmers while simultaneously supplying a 51-cent per gallon subsidy for ethanol furnishes enough ammunition for the media to feed on for weeks. Throw in the fact that the $300 billion 2008 Farm Bill represents a 30 percent increase over the 2002 version, and you’ve got a recipe for a public relations disaster.

Naturally, those folks who live on one coast or the other and have never knocked the mud off a pair of boots suddenly view ethanol as another government boondoggle.

And when the costs of feeding cattle double or triple in a matter of months, it’s likely that cowboys’ views of ethanol are going to be closer to those folks on the coasts than they are to a farmer from the Midwest.

In Drovers’ regular Consumer column last month (“Wasted energy,” Drovers, May 2008, page 38), writer Suzanne Bopp noted that the “anti-ethanol chorus is getting louder.” The column cited the fact that several studies have questioned ethanol’s efficiency and its ability to reduce emissions. Bopp also noted the current hot topic is the question of land use and how ethanol is spurring the demand for more land to raise corn.

Several readers responded with their own views of the column, and some called it unbalanced and even misleading. Here are a few snippets from those responses.

  • “Your article ‘Wasted Energy’ gave me much pain. If corn ethanol was so bad, why was this not figured out before all the money and hype?”
  • “How many of these studies are funded by Big Oil?”
  • “We are farmers and beef producers. We don’t want to be held hostage by oil-producing countries when we can be a part of the solution. It is an evolving technology that will continue to improve.”
  • “There are many credible studies, in fact the vast majority, that show a net gain in energy when producing ethanol from corn. The negative studies are primarily from one individual with an agenda. Feeding wet distillers’ grains further enhances the energy gain.”
  • “Several studies show that ethanol has decreased the price of gasoline.”

 Your position on ethanol probably depends on whether you are feeding cattle right now or raising corn. Certainly, many of our readers do both. Of importance to us as magazine producers is to ensure that our words are not misunderstood.

Each month, Bopp examines an issue that is of importance to American consumers  —  your customers. Those issues are often directly about beef but, as in the case of ethanol, can be about subjects more indirectly involved with beef production.

Specifically, last month’s column pointed out what a lot of people are now saying about ethanol, and noted that consumers have shown an interest in using ethanol even at some additional out-of-pocket cost, while some are willing to travel out of their way to avoid it and fill up with gasoline.

 Drovers applauds the fact that the recent ethanol boom has provided jobs and benefits to many rural communities. But we also recognize the mounting losses in most of America’s feedyards will cause economic harm to many of those same communities. 

 A snippet from another reader response:

“The blending mandate should be repealed, the tax credit and tariff on imported ethanol eliminated.  If an ethanol producer can go into competition with me for corn, and make a profit in the free market in doing so, I say go to it.”