Agro-Fuel Craze Squeezing Farmers

This article was originally published by Joe Brewer of the Rockridge Institute on August 22, 2007.

By framing our energy problems as being about which source of fuel to use, we have landed in a trap that is hurting local farmers. The consolidation of crop markets by large corporations is squeezing the little guy. This is not exactly the economic boom for rural communities we’ve been hearing about for so long.

A recent article by Tom Philpott on Grist reinforces something we have observed in our work on framing the energy debate.  He points out that the story we’ve been told is flawed:

Of all the arguments in favor of government backing for corn-based ethanol, only one seems even remotely reasonable to me: that it could lead to real economic development in depressed areas of the Midwest.

As nice as this sounds, it does not reflect the reality of what is happening now:

If the ethanol industry does consolidate and fall into corporate hands, farmers in the Midwest will be right back where they started from: selling cheap grain to a few big corporate buyers, and watching them turn it into fat profits for their shareholders. I can’t say I’ll be surprised.

How did this happen?  It has to do with the frames and narratives in the energy debate.  In my article, Debating Energy as if Communities Mattered,

I argued that the discourse was too narrowly focused on fuels.  As a result, we did not discuss whether our current agricultural system is capable of promoting life.  As Philpott shows, it is not even capable of providing a path to earning a living for local farmers.

Biofuels are not renewable!  At least not if they come from large-scale production systems.  In The Coming Biofuels Disaster, I pointed out that we are addressing the wrong problem with biofuels.  Instead of focusing on the reduction of carbon levels in the atmosphere, we need to restore balance with natural processes so that our communities can thrive.  Our current approach to agriculture is destroying life:

Soils in our agricultural plains are lost to wind and water, reducing the land’s capacity to produce food. And our water supplies are being diverted, drained, and contaminated by toxic run-off. We need to find livable solutions to this problem.

Framing is extremely important in this discourse.  Effective solutions – that don’t lead to further problems – can only be found if we address the right problem.   We progressives know this.

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