IN THE STRUGGLE of the lobbies over the synthetic fuels bill, the farm lobby appears to be emerging as the big winner. The House-Senate conference is moving toward very large subsidies to expand the use of gasohol. The main force behind this movement comes, naturally, from the farmers. They believe these subsidies to gasohol will lead to increased prices for their crops and for their land. They are right about that. The whole idea is really wanton public policy.
This bill originated in the congressional panic over the gasoline lines last spring. The House whipped through a rudimentary bill in June. When the Senate took it up in the fall, anxieties had cooled a little and the committees produced a much more careful version. But on the floor, the farm organizations, with the help of Sen. Herman E. Talmadge, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, pushed through a gasohol amendment setting wildly high productiongoals and offering $5 billion in aid. Because the House and Senate versions differ completely, the whole thing is being rewritten, line by line, in a conference that has been going on since December. The conferees have now arrived at the crucial question on gasohol: How much should the federal government subsidize it?
The right answer is that the government already subsidizes gasohol heavily, and no further aid is warranted. Congress has lifted the federal highway tax on gasohol, which means a subsidy of 40 cents a gallon for the alcohol that goes into it. That makes alcohol production more than adequately profitable. To the extent that further federal help pulls grain into the distilleries, it will inevitably rais food prices.
The advocates of gasohol reply that alcohol can be made from many products unsuitable for food -- wood chips, corn cobs, grass. That's quite true. If the conferees accept that logic, they can refuse any federal aid to gasohol derived from foodstuffs or any other crop that competes with grain for farm land.
The gasohol crusade also claims that there is no real loss to the food cycle because, after the distillers have extracted the starch from the grain, the residue can be fed to animals. That one is only about one-third true. Animals can, in fact, eat what's known as distillers' grain, but it isn't a complete diet for them. There's only a limited market for the stuff.
It's absolutely justified to subsidize certain synthetic fuels -- those involving uncertain and undeveloped technologies. But you could hardly say that mankind is inexperienced at operating grain stills. Subsidizing that technology is merely an attempt to increase the flow of gasoline in invading, foolishly and recklessly, the naton's food supply.