- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 10, 2008

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer yesterday said U.N. and other international aid officials are “flat-out wrong” to call U.S. ethanol production from corn a major factor in world food shortages and riots.

Mr. Schafer, a longtime proponent of biofuels, vehemently disputed efforts by the leaders of the World Bank and the U.N. World Food Program to blame ethanol for rising world food prices. He said his department calculates that competition between food and biofuels accounts only for up to 3 percent of food price increases.

“Only a very small portion of this problem is ethanol driven,” Mr. Schafer said in an interview with The Washington Times. Global food prices have risen 45 percent since mid-2007.

Mr. Schafer also said the administration will have an “uphill climb” to sustain President Bush’s promised veto of the farm bill compromise that Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill reached this week.

“Many Republican legislators in both houses … have indicated they’re going to vote to override the president,” he said, noting the lure of “money in their district.”

Mr. Schafer has become the administration’s point man for opposing the farm bill, arguing it does not sufficiently cut subsidies to high-income farmers.

“They’ve made it look good; they’ve said, ‘Oh, we put some limits on folks here,’ but the reality is they haven’t,” he said.

Mr. Schafer, a former governor of North Dakota who was sworn in as agriculture secretary in January, in the middle of the farm bill discussions, said farm income is projected to reach a record $92 billion this year, which is 50 percent higher than the average over the past 10 years.

He said continuing subsidies and adding new ones make no sense when farm incomes rise.

Congressional negotiators announced the outline of a compromise this week but the bill hasn’t been finalized.

Alise Kowalski, spokeswoman for Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said people should wait to see the measure before judging it.

“Without being able to read the text and without being able to see it, you can jump to a lot of conclusions,” she said.

Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Mr. Goodlatte, have said they are waiting to hear Mr. Bush say he will veto the bill, rather than Mr. Schafer. But White House spokesman Scott Stanzell said the president stands by Mr. Schafer’s statement, and that Mr. Bush hasn’t spoken because he is in Texas for his daughter Jenna’s wedding.

Capitol Hill negotiators did try to move toward the Bush administration, cutting aid to higher-income farmers and landowners, but at hundreds of thousands of dollars higher than Mr. Bush’s target of $200,000 in annual gross income.

The bill would increase spending for food stamps and other emergency nutritional programs, boost funding for protecting farmland for conservation, and establish new disaster assistance for farmers. It would also slightly reduce the subsidy for corn-based ethanol for fuel while doubling the subsidy for production of cellulosic ethanol.

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