The Misinformation Age

As a trade journalist and acknowledged information junkie, I probably shouldn’t make this next statement in print. But I will. I think our current information in-the-blink-of-an-eye age has gone too far.

You would think the free flow of all information would be a good thing for society — and counter to what has been the historic norm for disseminating knowledge. For example, I remember reading how the Chinese government, in the wake of the Tianamen Square uprising, came up with its own filtered version of events, telling the “official” story over and over again until the facts were completely obscured.

Thanks to the Internet, the filters are largely gone in today’s world. However, there are times when the overwhelming amount of information buzzing around completely muddies the waters and keeps inaccurate facts from being dismissed. Take, for instance, the persistent Internet-spread rumor that presidential candidate Barack Obama is really Muslim. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, this bit of misinformation continues to linger.

In ag, this campaign of misinformation is nothing new — and has often targeted new technologies or ways of doing things such as biotech crops (modifying nature is dangerous). Now, you can add ethanol to the list.

Since the U.S. agricultural community first embraced ethanol a few years ago, I’ve been amazed at how quickly this viable renewable fuel source has gone from demigod to demon. At times, it seemed as if some kind of grand ethanol misinformation conspiracy was in the works — similar to the “cast doubt” campaign Big Tobacco has waged for years on the risks of smoking.

Turns out there was. Last month, a Capitol Hill newspaper discovered that much of the misinformation regarding ethanol originated with the Grocery Manufacturers Association. A public relations proposal from this trade group stated the following: “First, we must obliterate whatever intellectual justification might still exist for corn-based ethanol among policy elites. Second, we must demonstrate to policymakers at the state and federal level that there is a political price to allowing ethanol policy to drive up the cost of food.” Since then, there have been numerous stories blaming ethanol for high food prices on the Web, in mainstream magazines, and on television.

But the problem with this argument against ethanol is that it’s inaccurate. According to Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, less than 20% of the cost of food comes from the higher commodity prices from ethanol demand. “The other 80% of the grocery costs — which includes transportation, packaging, and processing — are greatly affected by rising energy costs,” says White. “We’re not saying it doesn’t cost more to produce groceries today, but the main culprit is not the farmer, not higher grain prices, and not ethanol.”

The only way to fight misinformation is with cold, hard facts. Our industry is used to providing this kind of data, as witnessed by other efforts, such as The Fertilizer Institute’s education program on crop nutrient use. It’s time to begin this same kind of campaign with ethanol. There is now evidence that the misinformation peddlers are already working to tear down this important revenue source for ag retailers. We can’t afford to let them win.

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