Here is what we know is true about food in the United States of America: Everything bad about it--the demise of family farms, the pollution, the unhealthy products--flows from decades of our government working hand-in-glove with huge corporations to build an industrial algriculture system based on fossil fuels that produces a glut of corn and soybeans subsidized by U.S tax payers.
Neither the fossil fuels nor the glut are sustainable in the long term. In the short term they make our land and our people ill, while producing enormous profits for shareholders.
Keep that in mind as you watch President Obama address or not address the problems with U.S. food. I voted gladly for Barack Obama. I hope he is wildly successful. Even so, as we cheered on candidate Obama there was a little voice that kept reminding me that the former senator from Illinois has been a big supporter of turning corn into ethanol, one of the dumbest ideas to hit agriculture since Earl Butz admonished farmers to plant "fence row to fence row," and guaranteed federal tax dollars to pay for the excess.
No need to list all the ways we hate ethanol. (Or maybe just a few, like jacking up the price of food worldwide, spewing pollution into the nation's air and rivers, gobbling up natural gas and water, taking lands out of conservation. This ain't sugar cane, folks, and we ain't in Brazil.) But look here: Now that the price of oil has tanked, ethanol manufacturers are in trouble and looking for a bailout of their own. Could it be that Obama will use part of his huge stimulus package to prop up ethanol?
This is what the New York Times had to say back in December about Obama and his choice of agriculture secretary, fromer Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack:
"Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack are regarded as staunch advocates of ethanol and other bio-fuels as a way to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. And Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress are working on a major economic stimulus package, in which they intend to promote the creation of thousands of new jobs tied to “green energy” industries, including the production of solar and wind energy.
"One of the first major decisions Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack may have to make is whether to grant the ethanol industry’s requests for billions in federal aid in the stimulus bill, which Mr. Obama has said he hopes to sign into law quickly, perhaps on his first day in office.
“ 'The big issue for him and any incoming secretary is going to be biofuels, that’s the sector that right now is in such a volatile position,' ” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that is a leading critic of federal farm subsidies. American farmers, Mr. Cook said, are “ 'hitched to both the food system and the energy system, both of which are oscillating.' ”
More recently, an editorial in The Post-Standard of Syracuse New York describes the bankruptcy of one local ethanol plant, joining others around the country in the land of insolvency:
"Before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Jan. 14, the $200 million Northeast Biofuels facility outside Fulton had yet to reach full production," the paper writes. "At maximum capacity, the plant would have produced about 100 million gallons of ethanol per year from 40 million bushels of corn, making it the largest ethanol producer in the Northeast. The plant started up in August but shut down about a month ago because of flaws in its piping system.
"To resolve its problems and emerge from Chapter 11 ready to resume operations, Northeast Biofuels will have to raise more money. Credit, however, remains tight. The company had arranged to obtain new financing during reorganization, but the lender it was counting on pulled out.
"And the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's said there's a strong possibility that the company will be forced to liquidate to pay its creditors. In a liquidation, the lenders of the $140 million loan the company used to get started would recover little, if any, of their money, S&P said. That kind of prediction from a respected credit agency could make the company's search for financing even more difficult."
Apparently, the industry's best hope is a handout from Obama. As the Post-Standard notes, "the federal government made available billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to encourage production. Just in 2007, the corn-based ethanol industry received nearly twice as much in subsidies and three times as much in tax breaks as solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy producers....
"When the price of ethanol plummeted with gasoline and credit tightened, many ethanol companies went under. About 9 percent of all ethanol plants in the United States have filed for bankruptcy, and some say that could soon exceed 20 percent."
The Ethicurean blog has assembled an admirable list of the nation's pressing food issues as a measure of the new administration's resolve. Each is worthy of attention, but to my mind, the real test is whether this new president from the Heartland, a man whose star was launched in Iowa and who has drunk deeply from the cup of industrial agriculture, is ready to untie the unholy corporate-government alliance that has our food system in a choke hold.
Watch what he does with ethanol.