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REMEMBER the old nursery rhyme, “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost ” and so on, until the war was lost and the nation fell, all for want of a nail? The same might be said for what’s happening in the beef industry: Grocery prices are rising because meat-packing plants are closing because feedlots are closing because beef herds are declining all for the want of some corn. Experts estimate the economic impact in the Texas Panhandle alone at $1.1 billion so far.

To be sure, the biggest driver of the corn shortage stressing cattle (and other meat) producers is a devastating drought, the worst in 50 years, afflicting the central portion of the U.S. Even the back-to-back February blizzards, which brought up to 2 feet of snow, will do little to ease the dry conditions.

Over 91 percent of the High Plains region, down 10–20 inches of rainfall since April, is classified as being in moderate to exceptional drought. In 2012, the drought extended to the greatest area in the U.S. on record. Corn withered in the fields, farm ponds went dry, and pastures turned dusty and bare.

The USDA had estimated that the nation would produce 14 billion bushels of corn last year; the actual tally was 10.7 billion, sending feed prices soaring and making “finishing” cows in feedlots—i.e., fattening them up for slaughter—a losing proposition. So last year, the nation’s beef herds fell by 3.4 million head, causing prices to rise, both in the grocery store and at the burger joint down the street.

Except for prayer and the occasional rain dance, there’s not much one can do about drought. However, the nation can put more corn into the food chain. How? By turning off the ethanol spigot. Fully 42 percent of that paltry 2012 corn crop is being funneled to politically connected ethanol producers to fulfill the requirement that the alcohol variant comprise 10 percent of the fuel we use. To add insult to injury, it takes about 780 gallons of irrigation water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol, states the National Academy of Sciences.

The head of the EPA can waive or reduce the ethanol mandate, and in November, eight states, including Virginia, asked for that action. The EPA refused, citing lack of evidence of “severe economic harm.” What’s lost for want of rational and ethical government?


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