and has dismissed the idea that corn ethanol is driving up food prices. President Obama appears unlikely to challenge his party’s orthodoxy. On Nov. 3, the day before his election, Heather Zichal, the Obama campaign’s senior energy adviser, told Bloomberg News that Obama “recognizes how important the renewable and biofuels industry is to creating jobs and meeting our goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil. … He’s fully committed to it and sees tremendous value in the renewable fuels standard and continuing down this path.” In mid-December, Obama announced that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack would be the next secretary of agriculture and that Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado would head the Interior Department. Obama said they would be part of the “team we need” to strengthen rural America, create “green jobs” and “free our nation from its dependence on oil.” Vilsack and Salazar are longtime biofuels boosters. While governor of Iowa, Vilsack promoted corn ethanol production and cellulosic ethanol. During a brief run for president, Vilsack said he wanted to have the country producing 60 billion gallons of renewable fuel per year by 2030. Salazar has joined forces with Set America Free, a group founded by proIraq War neoconservatives, by endorsing legislation that will require automakers to manufacture “flex-fuel” cars that can burn ethanol or methanol. And like Vilsack, Salazar continues to promote cellulosic ethanol. On Jan. 20, during his inaugural address, Obama appeared to indicate that ethanol will continue to be a priority when he promised that “we will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” Critics believe the underlying problem with biofuelswhether it is cellulosic ethanol, soybean-based biodiesel, corn ethanol or other plant sourcesis the same: the lack of productive arable land. The more land that is dedicated to growing crops to feed cars, the less there is available to grow crops that feed livestock and people. And when food production declines, prices tend to rise. Although food prices are clearly headed up, there are some positive signs. Global grain harvests were good in 2008, with global cereal production up about 4.9 percent. And deflation throughout the U.S. economy is helping to slow food price increases. Meanwhile, the corn ethanol industry is being rocked by collapsing stock prices, bankruptcies and plant closures. In October, VeraSun Energy, the second-largest ethanol producer in the country, declared bankruptcy. About half a dozen ethanol distilleries have been idled since Jan. 1. Nevertheless, food inflation will likely continueand may be most obvious on the meat aisle. Industry groups say that meat prices will rise this year by 10 percent. The pending jump in prices will be caused in part by what Jim Schwertner sees outside his office window: decreasing livestock production because of high feed prices. Recent government data indicated that chicken production will decrease about 8 percent this year, turkey output by about 12 percent and cattle output by about 7 percent. COMIENTARYI BY JIM HIGHTOWER Workplace Fairness It’s a scream to hear corporate chieftains insist that there’s no more need for unions in America. “In the sophisticated workplace of the 21st century,” said the head of the National Association of Manufacturers, “the need for unions is obviated.” Oh really, chief? Let’s see, for years workers have dramatically increased their skills and productivity, only to be rewarded with declining wages, elimination of healthcare benefits, canceled pensions, constant downsizing, and the steady offshoring of middle-class jobs. Meanwhile, as CEOs enthusiastically ax workers, they extravagantly jack up their own pay and perks. Not only are unions needed, there’s a widespread yearning for them. A 2006 poll found that 68 percent of Americans believe labor unions are necessary to protect working familiesa percentage that’s undoubtedly climbed as our economy has tanked. Another survey found that 60 million Americans would join a union tomorrow if they could. So why don’t they? Because the rules have been rigged during the past 30 years to make union organizing next to impossible. Of those who even try, 20 percent get fired outright. Also, union representatives working organization campaigns are not allowed inside businesses to talk to employees, yet every employee can be forced to attend one-on-one meetings with company bosses, who make clear that supporting the union would be a bad career move. Even if employees vote to form a union, top executives can simply ignore them. But the rigged jig could be up. The Employee Free Choice Act would make union organizing more fair. Barack Obama supports it, but he and Congress are under intense pressure from corporate chieftains to back off. To learn more, contact www.freechoiceact.org . For more information on Jim Hightower’s workand to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdownvisit www.jimhightower.com . His latest book, with Susan DeMarco, is Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow. Those numbers leave Schwertner shaking his head. The corn ethanol business is making “food sky-high at the worst possible time for the American consumer,” he says. “It’s a travesty.” Robert Bryce, a contributing writer for the Observer, is the managing editor of Houston-based Energy Tribune magazine and author of three books, including Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 6, 2009
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