WASHINGTON -- Former President Bill Clinton on Thursday warned farmers not to use so much corn for ethanol fuel that it leads to higher food prices and riots in poor countries.
"We have to become energy independent but we don't want to do it at the expense of food riots," Clinton said at the Agriculture Department's annual agricultural outlook conference, which draws agribusiness executives, university experts and others in the industry from around the country.
The Des Moines Register reported Clinton stopped short of calling for slower biofuel production but said there was a need for some kind of periodic reassessment of the industry. There is a need to "make intelligent decisions with three- to five-year time horizons with the best information we have to maximize the availability of good food at affordable prices," Clinton said. He did not elaborate and did not take questions after his speech.
Clinton's warning stood in contrast to those of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said there is "no reason to take the foot off the gas" when it comes to biofuels, because U.S. farmers "can do it all."
Clinton told the outlook forum he believes producing biofuels such as corn-based ethanol is important for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But, he said, farmers should look beyond domestic production and consider the needs of developing countries.
"We know that the way we produce and consume energy has to change, yet for farmers there are no simple answers," he said. "There is a way for us to do this and to do it right."
Clinton's foundation has worked to develop agribusiness in African countries such as Malawi and Rwanda.
At the department's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, chief economist Joseph Glauber said food prices are expected to rise this year and corn use for ethanol will continue to grow. He said 37 percent of all U.S. corn production could be used for ethanol by 2012.
The ethanol industry long has said that its production does not significantly drive up food prices and that the price of corn contributes to a tiny percentage of every food dollar.
"The driver behind rising food prices has been and remains oil," said Matt Hartwig of the ethanol industry group Renewable Fuels Association. "Rising oil prices, even before the unrest in the Middle East and Northern Africa, have made everything we buy from food to clothes to oil more expensive."
Other industries, including some cattle feeders, have contended that ethanol contributes to food price spikes, affecting their bottom lines and consumers, too.
After years of boosting subsidized ethanol production, Congress has taken an increasingly skeptical look at the fuel as food prices have fluctuated and cutting spending has become a legislative priority.
More than $5 billion in ethanol tax credits were extended at the end of last year as a part of an end-of-session tax deal. But the new Republican House passed two amendments to a spending bill last weekend that would attempt to slow ethanol use.
Glauber said Thursday that ethanol production is currently running at more than 13 billion gallons a year. Congress has required refiners to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuels, mostly ethanol, into auto fuel by 2022.