Something rare and notable was on display in Washington, D.c=, this month: courage and vision in support of rural America. It started with former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan extolling the virtue of American-grown ethanol, and continued when Senators and Representatives from both sides of the aisle joined forces to introduce legislation calling for America to produce 25 percent of our energy supply from renewable resources by 2025.
Farm-based renewable energy, and in particular liquid biofuels derived from crops, cellulose and agricultural wastes, can deliver today a secure and stable supply of fuel. At the same time, they can provide support for American farmers, create long-term jobs for rural communities and enable us to make tangible reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
This opportunity comes at a trying time for rural communities. In rural America today, record-level gains in productivity are undermined by persistently weak and unstable commodity prices. Volatile weather patterns and uncertain effects of global warming exacerbate risks to producers and shippers. And surging oil and gas prices are hitting farmers and rural communities particularly hard as the costs of energy inputs at every stage of production and distribution rise, but prices for crops remain flat.
A robust biofuels development and deployment plan in the United States could increase agricultural sector profits by $5 billion per year and displace 1.5 million barrels of oil by 2025. Today’s biofuels contribute directly and indirectly to the creation of 147,206 jobs and have added $14 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.
What’s more, ethanol-blended gasoline reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 13 percent, and studies indicate that advanced cellulosic ethanol produced from Switchgrass and other sources can make significantly greater reductions in greenhouse gases. The benefits of cleaner burning biobased fuels do not stop in our rural communities and can, if implemented effectively, reverberate well beyond our shores.
How can America help its own rural communities and those around the globe? Well, first of all America can share these new technologies to produce biobased fuels with our friends in the developing world.
At the moment, developing countries have, in most cases, two options for energy production: imported oil or domestically available coal. An analysis released by the Center for American Progress finds that the increased price of oil is having a dramatic impact on even the best performing African countries. Just as the international community is helping these countries get out from under the crush of debt, the same countries pay from five percent to nearly 40 percent of GDP for imported oil, completely wiping out whatever benefit we might have hoped for from debt relief.
For those countries that would turn to coal as an alternative to oil, however, the outlook is no better. As developing countries invest in dirty burning coal plants they increase the amount of global warming gases in the atmosphere, which threaten to increase storms, disrupt agriculture and impose grave risks on the global economy. As our friends turn to renewable and cleaner burning biobased fuels, they will have a real alternative to high priced imported oil and dirty burning coal.
Secondly, small-scale farmers in the most vulnerable developing countries share a frustration with American family farmers: a global agricultural trading system that fails to deliver better income and increased market opportunities for their products. Partly as a result of this problem, global trade talks taking place under the auspices of the World Trade Organization — called the Doha Round — have missed several self-imposed deadlines and appear to be stalled.
The quickest way to breathe new life into trade talks is for the U.S. government to announce its support for a dramatic increase in research and development on biobased fuels, alongside details of its intention to use the 2007 farm bill to begin to shift some of its federal farm supports to energy producing crops. Doing so would help ensure that our farmers and farmers in the developing world get exactly what they all want: a fair market price for their crops and their labor.
The United States should be investing in the capacity of America’s family farmers to lead our nation towards diversified domestic energy production, increased prosperity and greater security. In so doing, we can free ourselves and our friends in the developing world of the high costs of oil dependence and build a better future for all.
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