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Soybean groups withhold money from U because of study

While a recent University of Minnesota study on biofuels and global warning was garnering attention across the country, some folks closer to home were fuming about its implications.The Minnesota Soybean Growers Association a

While a recent University of Minnesota study on biofuels and global warning was garnering attention across the country, some folks closer to home were fuming about its implications.

The Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotions Council voted jointly late last week to hang onto the $1 million to $2 million they give annually for soybean-related research at the university.

The decision is tied directly to the study co-authored by four university researchers, which concluded that production of biofuels, long heralded as an environmentally friendly alternative to oil, contributes more to global warming than petroleum. The study also raised concerns about potential environmental impacts if farmers begin to clear forests and other natural habitats to grow crops specifically for biofuel production, including corn and soybeans.

“Soybean farmers are frustrated and concerned with the study,” said Jim Palmer, the council’s executive director. “It was done for sensationalism as much as anything else.”

Palmer said the council won’t release the money until representatives can meet with the university’s administration, including the dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Bev Durgan, dean of the U’s Extension Service and director of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, said the university plans to work things out with the soybean groups. This situation, she said, might just be a case of “agree to disagree.”

“Our responsibility is to talk with this group and keep this in perspective,” she said. “This is one study; there are other studies (under way at the U). This is a very hot topic right now in the public, and there are going to be very different perspectives on it.”

She said this isn’t the first time a group has raised concerns about a study’s conclusions, but it won’t affect the university’s commitment to research.

“That’s a part of doing research and education — that people are not always going to agree with the results,” Durgan said. “But we firmly believe that our faculty have the right to do this.”

Give-and-take relationship through the years
It isn’t likely that the council and association will keep their money indefinitely.

After all, Palmer pointed out, the groups have gotten along grandly with the university in the past. They’ve given somewhere between $35 million and $40 million over the years because soybean farmers depend on the U’s public research, which helps with all sorts of production issues — from growing methods to eradicating pests.

While it’s easy to argue about the intent and tone of the university’s study, it’s hard to debate its scientific merit. It was reviewed by independent researchers and published in Science. It’s also worth pointing out that the study concludes that biofuels still should be produced — but from waste products like corn stalks instead of from full crops.

What this kerfuffle reveals is agriculture’s increasingly politicized landscape. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what has cleared the way in recent years, though the public’s increasing awareness of food and environmental issues is one big factor.

A decade or so ago, it was the apparent rise of what was eventually dubbed either Big Ag or factory farming. The issue may have cooled in the Twin Cities — after all, there aren’t many 5,000-hog facilities in South Minneapolis — but furious debates carry on in much of rural Minnesota each time a new large farm is proposed.

A few months ago it was farm subsidies — at least until Congress appeared to back away from reforming them in the current federal farm bill. (For anyone looking for outstanding journalism on subsidies, check out the Washington Post’s yearlong investigation titled “Harvesting Cash.”)

These days it’s biofuels, which in Minnesota means ethanol. The university’s study is just the latest to raise big-picture questions about the future of biofuels, and it comes on the heels of suggestions that ethanol’s economic boom has peaked and government subsidies should be phased out. That, and there are proposals in the Minnesota Legislature that would hold new ethanol plants to a series of stricter regulations.

So each time one of these studies comes out, it’s now practically expected that those on the other side will bristle — legitimately or not.

“Why did they do this study? Who funded this study? What do they hope to accomplish? That’s just the type of questions the farmers want to ask and want to continue asking,” Palmer said.

Rob Hanks, who farms in Leroy in southeast Minnesota and chairs the soybean council, said the study irks him just as much as the next soybean farmer. But it’s bigger than one study, he said. And he, for one, hopes that sooner or later, farmers and researchers who question biofuels will start to find some common ground on the technology.

“Farmers feel like agriculture is under siege, that every environmental group is using us a scapegoat for every concern,” he said. “You almost get numb to a point.”

Related content: Growing Fuel: MinnPost’s four-part series on the ethanol craze