Ethanol and China are flash points for Trump and Biden campaigns

President Trump “sold out ethanol to Big Oil” by handing out dozens of exemptions from the ethanol mandate, said Iowa farmer Pam Johnson, speaking for the Biden campaign at a forum on Tuesday. “We haven’t abandoned the RFS and we aren’t going to — ever,” retorted Trump representative Sam Clovis.

Johnson and Clovis also sparred over farm trade with China but were united in opposing the introduction of supply management or land set-asides as mechanisms to boost commodity prices after years of bumper crops. The USDA estimates crop and livestock revenue this year will be the lowest in a decade while record-large federal payments provide 36% of net farm income.

“He sold out ethanol to Big Oil,” said Johnson, a former president of the National Corn Growers Association during a Farm Foundation forum. “If there’s any issue in America that would peel off lifelong Republicans from supporting Donald Trump right now, it is the issue of renewable fuels and small refinery waivers.”

Ethanol makers and farm groups relied on Trump for years to take their side against the EPA for approving so-called hardship exemptions for small-volume refineries from the obligation to mix ethanol into gasoline. The number of waivers mushroomed during Trump’s tenure. The exemptions reduced ethanol demand by 4 billion gallons, the ethanol industry says. The oil industry says the waivers are issued after the fact, so the impact is minimal.

In October 2018, Trump approved year-round sale of E15, a higher blend of ethanol into gasoline than the traditional 10% mixture in a victory for ethanol. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler has emphasized EPA adherence to a requirement to set the ethanol mandate at 15 billion gallons a year and recently rejected oil industry requests for 53 RFS waivers stretching back for years. The EPA hasn’t yet announced the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2021.

“We’re not going to step away” from biofuels, said Clovis, who was a cochair of Trump’s 2016 campaign. He withdrew his nomination for USDA chief scientist in 2017 after investigators said he encouraged a campaign staff worker to try to contact Russia claiming to have harmful information about the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. “E15 year-round is a big step forward to keep that commitment going … We haven’t abandoned our commitment to the RFS and we’re not going to — ever.”

Trump deserves credit for tackling trade relations with China, engineering the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and winning wider access to Japan and South Korea for U.S. food and ag exports, said Clovis. “I do think we are in a position of advantage right now” with China.

“They retaliated on ag goods and we’ve been paying the price ever since,” said Johnson. She said Democratic nominee Joe Biden would resolve the Sino-U.S. trade war by working with allies to put additional pressure on China to change its trade practices.

Clovis and Johnson strongly opposed supply management and cropland set-asides. “I do think that we have a lot of market influences out there that we need to take advantage of,” said Clovis, with the goal of expanding sales of U.S. crops and livestock. “We tried supply management in the past and it failed,” said Johnson. “If we stop producing our grains and our meats and our eggs and our milk, someone else will fill in, and it’s really hard to get those markets back.”

Congress eliminated many government controls over agriculture, including a requirement to set aside a portion of cropland to qualify for subsidies, as part of the Freedom to Farm law of 1996.

The campaign representatives also agreed that SNAP should remain part of the farm bills written every five years or so. Some conservative lawmakers have proposed splitting them into separate bills. Passage of the 2014 and 2018 farm bills was delayed for months by Republican proposals for large cuts in SNAP.

“The reality of the world is you can’t get a farm bill passed without having SNAP tied to it. We know that and everybody knows, it so I think that that’s really our position going forward,” said Clovis.

A video of the Farm Foundation forum is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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