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Ethanols adding to hunger in U.S.

TWO VIEWS • Agriculture, energy policies collide in corn
by: Scott Olson, Energy initiatives involving ethanol have fueled the demand for corn, but people disagree on whether this plays a role in rising prices at the grocery store.

In the war on poverty, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., is his own worst enemy. He is one of Congress' leading proponents of social welfare for poor and hungry households. Yet his support for ethanol production helps inflate the price of food, making it harder for these same families to eat.

Smith has long been a champion of America's hungry. He is a charter member of the Senate Hunger Caucus, formed in 2004 to focus Congress' attention on 'food insecurity,' a bureaucratic term for American households that struggle to afford enough food to eat. Almost a third of the Senatehasjoined the caucus, including both Oregon senators.

Smith is now co-chairman of the caucus, and he continues to labor to keep the issue in the spotlight. Just last March, he convened a hearing on the plight of seniors who can't afford a proper diet. During the hearing, Smith implored Congress 'to do more to ensure our most vulnerable citizens are lifted from the threat of hunger.'

Despite his evident concern for the hungry, Smith supports an energy policy that threatens the very constituency his hunger caucus was created to help.

In both 2005 and 2007, he voted to expand the production of ethano because it furthers American energy independence by displacing gasoline made from foreign oil.

Unfortunately, it also causes the price of food to increase. After all, more food in the gas tank means less foodon the dinner table.

It takes about 21 pounds of corn to make a gallon of ethanol, and Smith backs a plan to make 15 billion gallons of corn-fuels by 2016.

Last year, ethanol producers took 550 billion pounds of corn off the market to make fuel. Since 2005, when Smith's ethanol policies went into effect, the added demand has helped push up the priceof corn by 300 percent, and corn now sells at a record-high price.

But that's not all. Expensive corn gave farmers incentive to devote more land to corn and less to other crops, which resulted in a supply crunch that caused thepriceof wheat and soybeans to skyrocket to previously unseen levels.

By now, you probably have felt the pinchof rising food costs at the supermarket checkout line. Meat and dairyare more expensive because feed for livestock is made from corn.

The Labor Department reports that milk prices are up 26 percent from a year ago, and eggs are up 40 percent. Expensive wheat has pushed up the price of flour, so bread, pasta and cake cost more. All told, the price of groceries is increasing at twice the historical rate.

Not only is it harder to afford a meal, but the high price of food makes government assistance to the hungry less effective.

'With the rising cost of food, the food stamp dollar doesn't cover as much,' says Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director of the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force.

Smith wants to help the hungry, but his energy policy hurts them by raising food prices and diluting government aid to the poor. By supporting ethanol, he tried to further America's energy security; instead, he ended up exacerbating its food-insecurity.

According to a 2006 report from the Department of Agriculture, almost 12 percent of Oregon households are food insecure, which is higher than the national average. Smith could best help his most vulnerable constituents by ditching ethanol.

William Yeatman is an energy policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.