Coalition: USDA corn reports perpetuate damaging misconceptions

By Holly Jessen | March 21, 2011

In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition said it believes USDA monthly corn reports provide support for “sensationalized reporting” on the food vs. fuel argument. “We would like to bring to your attention a damaging corn utilization misconception that the USDA is inadvertently perpetuating with incomplete reporting procedures, and that they Governors believe should be corrected immediately,” the letter said.

The March 15 letter, currently under review by the USDA, said USDA’s monthly corn supply and demand reports identify “corn demand for ethanol” without noting it’s gross demand, not net use. In other words, the corn reports don’t take DDGS and the fact that it is used as a high-value animal feed into account. “This overstates the use of corn for ethanol by as much as a factor of two or more, and fails to inform the public about what is truly happening in the food and fuel supply chain,” the letter said.

The Governors’ Biofuels Coalition was formed in 1991 and includes governors from 36 states and representatives from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Sweden, Australia and Thailand. The group recently expanded to include work on biodiesel, advanced biofuels and other products derived from renewable sources.

The coalition pointed to 2008 letter by Sens. Richard Lugar and Benjamin Nelson to their fellow legislators. That letter cited animal nutritionists’ who said every two bushels of corn processed at an ethanol plant results in about one bushel of DDGS, as well as nearly six gallons of ethanol. 

Vilsack has been a strong supporter of agriculture and ethanol, something the coalition noted in its letter. However, in recent months the food vs. fuel debate has begun anew, fueled by “uninformed, or even malicious, media attacks”—despite the fact that it has been confirmed that biofuels wasn’t the catalyst in 2008 commodity price spikes. “We believe it is extremely important that you inform the American public about the enormous contributions that our farmers and livestock producers are making to the nation’s food supplies, as well as its energy and environmental security,” the letter said.

Growth Energy applauded the coalition’s efforts. If DDGS were included in the count of U.S. corn use, it would help kill misinformation about food vs. fuel. “More than a third of all corn that goes into ethanol production is returned to the food chain in the form of highly valued, nutritious livestock feed that replaces a greater volume of field corn, thereby saving livestock producers money,” said Chris Thorne, Growth Energy’s public affairs director. “There has been a willful effort to distort the truth about our nation’s ability to provide both food and fuel, mostly from the companies that seek to profit from high grocery store prices.”

In a related note, the USDA and the coalition have yet to finalize a memorandum of understanding announced Feb. 25. It would encourage continued development of bio-based products for energy consumption, animal feed, chemicals and other uses. "This agreement will strengthen public, private and academic partnerships that are essential to bio-based industries," Vilsack said. "It is important that we work together to encourage the development of more bio-based products. Not only will this reduce our nation's dependence on imported oil, it also will lead to a cleaner, healthier environment."