RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Food prices have been a topic of some urgency lately and the cause of riots around the globe in recent months. World leaders came together in Rome last week for a food summit to tackle some of the issues around food, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer was there. He joined us in our Washington studio to talk about it. Welcome.
Secretary ED SCHAFER (Department of Agriculture): Thank you.
MONTAGNE: The U.S. gives more food than any other country in the world, 50 percent of the world food aid. But it does come in for criticism because much or most of that food is mandated to have been grown in America, transported on American ships, and critics make the argument that the U.S. should instead give cash and help poor countries develop and buy food locally. Is the U.S. policy likely to change?
Sec. SCHAFER: Well, I think energy costs are so high today that transportation is chewing up so many of the dollars that we put on the table that we're just not being able to get as much food effectively to people as we used to be. We ask for 25 percent of our food aid to be purchased locally, especially on an emergency basis, when often speed is of an issue, but Congress did not see to do that.
We did, however, get a pilot program so we can show Congress that, you know, this is how it can be beneficial for our humanitarian responsibilities for the rest of the world.
MONTAGNE: The declaration that came out of the summit in Rome managed to sidestep, mostly, the controversy that's grown over biofuels. But many economists say that using corn for ethanol is driving up the price of basic food in many parts of the world. Is the Bush administration willing to reconsider its biofuel policy?
Sec. SCHAFER: We have a strong biofuels policy, and we're committed to it. What we pointed out is that of the expected 43-percent increase in global food prices this year, three percent of that is driven by ethanol production in the United States. So it is not a huge factor. The cost of energy is what's really driving the cost of food today, and biofuels help us reduce that.
MONTAGNE: Well, even if ethanol doesn't raise the price generally of food, the price of corn has gone up quite substantially because so much of America's corn, for instance, is going into biofuel.
Sec. SCHAFER: Well, I think about 25 percent of our corn goes into biofuel. This is yellow corn. It's feed corn. Only about a third of it goes into food.
MONTAGNE: Right, but it's feeding animals.
Sec. SCHAFER: Right.
MONTAGNE: So feed costs have gone up. Therefore, say, beef is going up.
Sec. SCHAFER: Mm-hmm. But we have done such amazing things in increasing yields in this country that while our ethanol process is taking up some percentage of the corn production, at the same time, we're increasing our exports of corn. We're increasing our use of corn for food. We're increasing all the traditional markets for corn, as well as putting ethanol. So we're not removing any corn from those marketplaces, and that's what distorts the prices. So far in our country, we've stayed ahead of it with yields.
MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, what do you consider your first priority to boost food production and make more food affordable worldwide?
Sec. SCHAFER: What we need to do globally is to help other nations increase their yields to match the United States. We need farm-to-market roads. We need water-system increases, hybrid crops, good animal husbandry. The increased demand across the world is higher, and unless we make huge investments in increasing productivity in countries that haven't done so in the past, then people are going to start going hungry.
MONTAGNE: Ed Schafer is U.S. secretary of agriculture. Thank you very much for joining us.
Sec. SCHAFER: Thank you, Renee.