We all know that the legislators who write US farm policy are not the brightest bulbs in the box. Even so, Senator Chuck Grassley treated us to an unusual insight into his own very special, mixed-up world during a telephone press briefing last week, reported in the Des Moines Register. Asked about the contribution of the US Government’s massive food-to-fuel subsidies to rising world food prices and the resulting hunger, poverty and social unrest, Grassley denied there was any connection and suggested the responsibility lay with people in China eating too much meat.
Senator Grassley knows full well that for the past few years, a full 30 per cent of maize grown in the US is grown not to feed people but to feed automobiles, for the very good reason that a good part of it is grown and refined in his very own home state of Iowa. The notion that withdrawing such a huge volume of land from food production could have any impact on the availability and affordability of food is clearly beyond the Senator’s grasp of basic economic theory. But then again, we are talking about a longstanding member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the folks that only last year dreamed up a new $5 billion ‘permanent disaster aid program’ to give handouts to farmers in parts of the US where it never rains.
When he was Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Grassley authored the massive tax breaks that began the ethanol boom. For those who are interested in economic analysis, biofuels are thought to be responsible for between 10 and 25 per cent of recent increases in food prices. The other drivers of price rices include a high oil price, bad harvests in several parts of the world, speculation in commodity markets by investors, decreasing government strategic food reserves and the increased consumption of livestock products in the growing middle classes of Asia and Latin America.
But back to the press briefing. As a performance, it’s a cross between the self-consciously folksy shtick of vintage era Donald Rumsfeld and the cringe-making, rabbit-in-the-headlights inanity of President Bush. In the video I’ve cut in a few choice passages from a rather different speech Grassley made at a New Baptist Covenant meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier in the year.
Listen to Senator Grassley’s infamous ‘Let them eat rice’ declaration in full[audio:grassley_audio.mp3]
“I read about the riots over the price of food. It’s bread in Egypt and it’s rice in China, er, I mean Thailand, and maybe other places where they have some riots, but… I don’t see any… I saw a little bit of concern in Mexico maybe three months ago on tortidos. Is that what you call them, tortidos? [Aide: “Tortillas”] Tortillas. And er, and er, but, but, y’know, we don’t make, er, ethanol, out of rice and out of wheat. So I’m not sure that I understand except ignorance on the part of people about the connection between making ethanol and making, and, er, food. Because I could set a bucketful of corn in front of those people from the IMF or we could go where they’re compaining. And they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Any more than I would know what to do if an eskimo set a pale full of blubber in front of me. So, er, so I’m not very sympathetic toward it at this point. When they start getting a connection between corn and food, then I’ll be glad to listen. Part of our problem is that Chinese are going, er, to eat meat. And you’ve got to have corn and soybeans to feed the Chinese, their meat, then why isn’t it just as legitimate for the Chinese to go back and eat rice as it is for us to change our policy on corn to ethanol.”
Can this be the same Chuck Grassley who opined that “turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to world hunger exposes the selfish side of human nature.” With US corn at record highs of $6 a bushel, the selfish side of Chuck Grassley is very much exposed!
Here in the EU, politicians are falling over themselves to recant on any earlier backing of food-for-fuel policies. But for as long as selfish, hypocritical, pork barrel merchants like Chuck Grassley are driving the policy, the US will continue marching down this most crooked of roads that is doing so much harm to world’s poorest people and to the environment.
Of the three remaining candidates to be the next US President, only one has a record of opposing ethanol boosterism: John McCain. The Washington Post recently reported on a physical altercation between Grassley and McCain, though this was NOT over ethanol subsidies. It did lead the pair to be on non-speaking terms for two years, though it is said that they have subsequently patched things up. I’m told that Democrat front-runner Barack Obama has well and truly drunk the biofuels kool aid while Hillary Clinton is just desperate to woo farm state super-delegates as she battles to stay in the race for the Democratic nomination.
If changing EU policy on biofuels feels like turning around a supertanker, changing US policy is more akin to pushing an avalanche back up the mountain.