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Biodiesel mandate sparks food fight

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Soybeans in field
Soybeans as a source for biodiesel sparked a debate on the House floor on food versus fuel.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The food versus fuel debate is being waged worldwide.  Public Policy institutes, the United Nations and the European Union have all issued reports connecting an increase in biofuels production to rising food prices.  The debate hit home on the House floor.

"The push in this country and throughout the world to develop biofuels is dramatically affecting world food prices," said Rep. Ken Tschumper, DFL-Le Crescent.  

Part of the agriculture policy bill being debated by the House requires diesel fuel sold in Minnesota to include 20 percent soybean-based biodiesel by 2015.  Current law requires 2 percent.  

"The push in this country and throughout the world to develop biofuels is dramatically affecting world food prices."

Tschumper said increasing the requirement would only boost food prices.  He said the requirement would take soybeans from food production and put them into fuel production.  

"I think it's a tremendous mistake for our Legislature and our state to adopt another mandated biofuel level, a B20 level, as included in this legislation," he said.

Tschumper was unsuccessful in his attempt to eliminate the biodiesel mandate from the bill.  He also failed in an effort to delay the requirement.

But his action prompted a debate on how biofuels like biodiesel and ethanol are affecting food prices.  

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said it's the Legislature's responsibility to determine whether the push for increased biofuels production is having unintended consequences.

"All of us in this body are concerned about oil and the price of  oil," she said.  "There's no question about that.  We're all concerned about the environment, but we want to know if what we're doing in this bill is really the right thing to do."

Supporters of the biodiesel mandate say increased food prices are not due soley to the biofuels push.  

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, is the chief author of the agriculture policy bill.  Juhnke said a growing middle class in China and India is increasing demand for food.  In addition, he said farmers are being forced to pass along rising oil costs to consumers.

"Energy is used to ship our food products around this country and around this world," he said.  "Energy and oil products are used to produce most of those food products in our plants.  The price of oil going to $120 a barrel is the main reason that the immediate increase in food prices have gone up."

Juhnke also said the bill allows the state to abandon the biodiesel requirement if the costs get too high or if there's a shortage of supply.  

The 20 percent requirement would also apply only during the warm months of the year.  The level could dip down to 5 percent in the winter.  

Juhnke also hoped that biodiesel could be created from other nonfood plants.  That prompted concern from Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who said that agricultural lobbyists opposed efforts to make biodiesel from sources other than soybeans.

"I am a strong supporter of biodiesel if it's made from algae or waste or other kinds of things like that," she said.  "We could if we wanted to choose a definition of biodiesel fuel that excluded food.  We haven't done that in this bill.  Until we can do that, I have to vote against it."

The House passed the Agriculture Policy bill 121-7.  It now needs to be reconciled with a Senate bill, which also includes the biodiesel requirement.  

Gov. Tim Pawlenty also supports the measure but said that he'd like to see efforts to move biofuels production to nonfood sources.

"Both in terms of technology and in terms of the source of what we make the fuel out of, it has to move to phase two, because we can't have a future where we're relying only on corn and soybeans to make biofuels," he said.  "I support the biodiesel requirement but I also want to start setting the expecation that we need to start using other sources for these fuels besides just corn and soybeans."

Even if the bill becomes law, lawmakers are likely to continue debating the issue. 

Both supporters and opponents of biofuels said during the House debate that rising oil and food prices will mean that the Legislature could revisit the issue for years.