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The Link Between Food and Fuel

May 8, 2008
Weekly Columns

Last week the President urged Congress to pass legislation to help curb the rising costs of food worldwide.  For months, Africa, Asia and other parts of the developing world have been experiencing waves of discontent and widespread hunger because of food shortages.  Some have attributed those shortages to the rising use of agricultural resources and land to grow corn for ethanol instead of food.  While finding alternative energy such as corn-based ethanol is important, a creative alternative must be found to make sure that the world hunger problem is not exacerbated during the process.

The skyrocketing cost of gasoline requires us to be more innovative when searching for new and alternative sources of fuel.  But, that progress should not contribute to the worldwide food shortage that is already being felt.  For several years corn-based ethanol has been the preferred alternative.  Unfortunately, the increased use of corn for fuel has caused a sharp rise in price for corn as an agricultural feedstock and food for human consumption.  If you happen to be a corn grower, this is a good thing.  For the vast majority of the rest of us who are not corn growers, it's problematic.

I am not advocating that we abandon our research into broader use of ethanol as a fuel source.  I believe it can play an important role in helping America become energy independent.  But it also makes little sense to literally take food from people in order to put gas in our tanks.  Fortunately there is an alternative and Oklahoma is leading the way.  The Oklahoma Bioenergy Center recently announced that they have acquired over 1000 acres on which they intend to plant cellulosic energy crops - the most common of which is switchgrass.

Ethanol derived from switchgrass is a part of the next generation of biofuels being developed.  Switchgrass offers an alternative to traditional fossil fuels, but does not conflict with food shortages because it is not an edible crop.  That gives it a decisive advantage over corn-based ethanol.  And although switchgrass is not the answer to all our energy problems, it is certainly a promising example of a fuel resource that does not compete with food sources.

It is unlikely that we will ever be completely independent of fossil fuels.  In fact, there was a time when Americans thought they would eventually see a dramatic decline in the use of coal, but to this day coal still powers a vast amount of our nation's electricity production.  The overarching lesson is that our nation is best served by drawing its fuel needs from a diverse energy base.  I am optimistic that Oklahoma switchgrass can serve as one part of that energy base in the hopes of alleviating the cost of energy without further contributing to the global food shortages.