The facts about biofuels

Friday, July 7, 2006

By Peter Myers

Many poorly chosen words have been written with bad information about biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel in the past several months. Over the past two years several of the members and the staff of the Missouri House Agriculture Committee have been deeply involved in the facts about production efficiencies of ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol -- good old white lightning, or grain alcohol -- is a product which can be produced from a variety of cellulosic materials. Corn happens to be a product which is easy to handle, store and transport and thus has become our primary source of ethanol in the United States. In the near future our agricultural researchers will develop a corn plant which will take nitrogen out of the air using nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots of the corn and convert it into nitrogen which the corn plant can use to produce kernels of corn to be transformed into ethanol. Nitrogen fixation is a known process where legumes such as clovers and soybeans convert free nitrogen from the air into plant materials in these legumes.

This is exactly what is happening in the biodiesel industry where soybeans are the crop of choice to produce soy oil which can then be mixed with animal fats to produce biodiesel. Biodiesel in turn will replace the sulfur (a pollutant) in our diesel fuel which propels farm tractors, large trucks, railroad locomotives and barges, all of which are vital to our economy in the United States. Biodiesel could also fire up electrical generators when the need, economics and research all come together to make it a viable practice.

Contrary to some old, biased and outdated research, ethanol produced from corn has a positive use of energy inputs (fuel and fertilizer) when compared to the energy outputs gained from using ethanol as fuel for our cars and trucks. We are blessed in this country to have the climate, soils, farmers and technology to be the No. 1 producer of corn in the world.

Why not use what we have (corn) to produce a product which is a triple winner for our country? By using a 10 percent blend of ethanol in gasoline in our major cities, including St. Louis, we are meeting the EPA reformulated gas requirements and reducing pollution in our air. Ethanol is a win for the environment, an economic plus for our farmers and a positive way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Biodiesel fits the same categories of reducing pollution, helping soybean prices and slowing the need for imported oil.

As for subsidies on corn and soybean production, they number far less than the many federal subsidies and tax breaks that the oil industry receives. Federal crop subsidies merely allow our nation's farmers to compete with farmers all over the world on an even footing. Our friends in Europe do not intend to ever be without food again and thus will continue to provide price supports for their agricultural industry. U.S. producers of our basic commodities have a difficult time competing with heavily subsidized agriculture in other parts of the world without some federal government help. This topic, however, is a subject for discussion on another day.

Ask yourself: If our farmers were put out of the food and fiber business by subsidized foreign agricultural imports, how would our consumers in the United States fare if other countries controlled our supply of food as we are now at the mercy of foreign oil to run our cars, trucks, trains and barges?

Peter Myers of Sikeston, Mo., represents the 160th District in the Missouri House of Representatives where he is chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He was a longtime farmer in the Bootheel.

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