Of Mice, Men and Biofuels

Congress is busily drafting a new version of a time-honored boondoggle ... er, I mean, the Farm Bill. I’ll admit it, I’ve never been a big fan of a piece of legislation that gives subsidies to the likes of NBA star Scottie Pippen just because he happens to own some land designated as “farm acreage.” And bear in mind the last Farm Bill Congress produced ran upwards of $80 billion, all for a dwindling population of true farmers — less than 3 percent of our overall workforce, last time I checked.

But this season adds a different twist. The latest biofuel/ethanol craze has farmers lining up for a new round of agriculture subsidies, and incorporating a very impressive marketing effort while they’re at it.

The latest argument goes something like this: Skyrocketing demand for ethanol is driving up the price of corn-derived products such as tortillas, bread, and even sodas and cereals. Therefore, we can’t keep this pace unless the government helps us out.

Wait a minute — wasn’t that the idea? Haven’t corn farmers been complaining for years that there was no stability in their prices, let alone those that yielded a greater return? Now they have a stronger sense on both those fronts, and still they want more subsidies? The Farm Bill was never meant to be an endless money trough! Ethanol currently accounts for only 3.5 percent of American fuel consumption, yet thanks to these subsidies, the industry is growing 25 percent per year. Some would say that’s a good thing — less dependence on foreign oil — but at what cost? Higher prices in the grocery store will only provide incentive for corn farmers to clamor for a larger share of the federal pie, I fear.

The answers lie less with more ag subsidies, and more with clean-conscious industry. As the likes of General Electric and ExxonMobil put money into cleaner technologies, costs will fall. Indeed, global investment in renewable power generation rose from $28 billion in 2004 to over $71 billion last year, according to The Economist.

We don’t need a horse-and-plow mentality to fix the Farm Bill’s inherent subsidy flaws, we need a tractor — let private-sector ingenuity and investment work to all of our benefit.