Politics re-enter corn fuel vs. food fight

Corn prices are way up, and cattle ranchers, dairymen and others who depend on the grain to feed their animals are pointing to corn ethanol as the culprit.

Prices are up, they say, because demand for corn used as a fuel source has skyrocketed.

The battle has once again found its way into the political realm, where efforts are under way at both the state and national levels to cut subsidies for the corn-based additive, which is blended into gasoline to help it burn more cleanly.

Last week, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, introduced legislation that would eliminate a cash subsidy that gives oil refiners 45 cents for every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline.

At the same time, a bill proposed by Assembly Member David Valadao, R-Hanford, that would have eliminated state funding for ethanol derived from corn was defeated in a state legislative committee. Valadao has vowed to bring the bill back in the near future.

Riverdale dairy operator Jamie Bledsoe said corn ethanol is hurting business, which in turn costs jobs and, ultimately, hurts consumers who pay higher prices.

In 2003, he paid $96 a ton for rolled corn to feed his cows. Today, he is paying $320 a ton.

"They are basically turning food into fuel, and it is being subsidized by the government," Bledsoe said. "I feel like I am competing against Uncle Sam for my corn."

But ethanol producers dispute being cast as villain in this economic drama.

Fresno resident Bill Jones, the former California Secretary of State who is chairman of the board for Pacific Ethanol, said corn ethanol has helped keep gas prices down. He also said it is a vital product that will help wean America off its oil dependence while a new generation of non-corn ethanol is developed.

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