Secretary Vilsack's Defiant Defense of Ethanol

Earlier this week US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack took to the pages of the Financial Times to offer up his recommendations on "How to avoid a global food price crisis." Many of his ideas, like improving weather monitoring, his admonition of irresponsible export bans, panic buying and hoarding and his suggestion to implement targeted safety nets for the most vulnerable are right out of many experts' playbooks for how to deal with dangerous price volatility. Vilsack even ended his piece with a strong case for why food security is important for US economic prosperity and national security:

Global food security is important to the many people around the world who are hungry but also critically important to the sustainable economic growth of these nations, the stability of food prices and the economic prosperity and national security of our own country.

But for those who have followed the recent price spikes with great worry, Vilsack glossed over what many understand to be one of the central drivers of food price volatility: irresponsible US agriculture policies. My colleague Gawain Kripke, Director of Policy and Research for Oxfam America, responded to Secretary Vilsack's article with a letter in today's Financial Times. Here's what Gawain wrote:

Sir: The recent column by Tom Vilsack, US secretary of agriculture ("How to avoid a global food price crisis", Comment, March 23), did a lot to introduce complexity into the conversation about rising food prices. What it did not offer was introspection on the ways that the US contributes to high and volatile food prices.

Mr Vilsack offered a long list of measures to increase agricultural productivity and food supply. Many of these initiatives, including President Barack Obama's Feed the Future programme, are quite promising.

But his defiant defence of US ethanol production, supported by massive taxpayer subsidies, undermines his credibility. It is disingenuous to gloss over the fact that the US, the world's biggest producer and exporter of corn, is converting almost 40 per cent of this year's harvest into fuel -- and the significant impact this has on food supplies and prices.

Mr Vilsack also neglected to mention the billions of dollars in farm commodity subsidies that distort the market and make agriculture a more difficult livelihood for the billions of unsubsidised farmers around the world, undermining increased production in developing countries. Nor did he come forward with proposals to reform a bureaucratic and wasteful international food assistance programme that loses close to half its budget to red tape and special interests.

Without a better recognition of how US Department of Agriculture and US government policies contribute to this enormous and complicated problem, Mr Vilsack's recommendations seem inadequate and sound like empty rhetoric.

Should the US reform its policies to help prevent a global food price crisis? What do you think?