Anti-ethanol effort led by grocers

According to two documents posted on Sen. Charles Grassley’s, R-Iowa, congressional Web site, the “grassroots” anti-ethanol media blitz that’s hitched today’s climbing food prices to farmer-backed biofuels is as fake as astro-turf.

Indeed, Grassley explained to Senate colleagues during his May 15 endorsement of the new farm bill, “It turns out that a $300,000, six-month retainer of a Beltway public relations firm is behind the smear campaign, hired by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.”

True, the grocery gang — a wealthy lobby of over 300 food and beverage makers and marketers like Kraft Foods, Miller Brewing, Dean Foods and ConAgra — made, then marketed, today’s highly believable, highly fake food vs. fuel debate.

Public relations

And how they did it, according to the Grassley-posted documents, was as simple as hiring a Washington public relations firm, The Glover Park Group, and writing a check. (Grocery Manufacturers Association’s call to arms can be read at http://grassley.senate.gov/public/releases/2008/05152008.pdf and Glover Park’s 26-page battle plan is posted at http://grassley.senate.gov/public/releases/2008/051520082.pdf.)

Taken together, the revealing memos are today’s tried-and-true recipe for public policy: A wealthy special interest cooks up a batch of anti-whatever Kool-Aid through careful and creative use of facts.

Then media experts like Glover Park carry the Kool-Aid to “elite” opinion shapers — newspaper editors, pundits, Internet bloggers — who dispense it to the thirsty public for free.

The masses, looking for a cure to $4 milk and $5 corn flakes, take a sip and, presto! Their tired eyes light up with clear understanding and ethanol becomes the worst idea since the pockets in underwear.

Money

Why would 300 of the world’s largest, richest food companies (many of which are foreign-based) have their Washington hired gun take aim at ethanol? The answer is, of course, money.

The higher prices Grocery Manufacturers Association’s members are now paying for basic inputs like corn, soy, wheat, milk and rice have moved their cost curves up and their profit curves down. It’s an intolerable trend, and something needed to be done.

“ … the grocery gang … made, then marketed, today’s highly believable, highly fake food vs. fuel debate.”

Since the grocery gang cannot influence global commodity production and prices, the easiest “influence” path to take is public policy: Undermine “the primary reason” for today’s higher food prices, explains the March 4 association memo, the mandated “2007 Energy Bill requiring gasoline refiners to blend 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol in the nation’s gasoline supply by 2015.”

Tricky business

Doing so, however, is tricky business. The gang prefers to be seen as white hats fighting for lower food prices, not black hats protecting profits and marketshare. That means someone else must carry the fight. And, as its memo explains, it knows just the right folks.

“Develop a global center-left coalition of environmental, hunger, food aid, poverty, development, senior, children, business, nutrition, farm, consumer and labor groups” movement to “amplify the links between (biofuel) mandates and food prices.”

Within 48 hours, Glover Park, a public relations firm with tight links to Congressional Democrats, answers the call with an extraordinary media plan to sell “a federal agency-level or legislative solution to the economically, environmentally and socially untenable ethanol policies now in place … ”

Within weeks, anti-ethanol seeds, bought by Grocery Manufacturers Association and planted by Glover Park, take root. Everyone from the New York Times to World Bank President Robert Zoellick is linking American ethanol to starving Sudanese children or worse.

Market forces

But wait. Aren’t other, more powerful market forces — global grain demand outpacing production seven of the last nine years, crude oil prices 500 percent taller than 10 years ago, inclement weather — propelling grain prices more than U.S. ethanol?

Sure, but don’t tell the grocery gang. Falling profit margins, not honesty, is behind their nasty, divisive campaign. Even worse, these truth-challenged food giants are using the poorest of the poor, “ … hunger, food aid, poverty, development, senior, children,” to reclaim their fat margins.

In a town long-known for its shameless demagogues, these folks take the cake.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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