When it comes to corn ethanol, the Wall Street Journal has run more than its fair share of critical stories. So we were delighted to open to the Opinion page the other day and read an article that tells it like it is-at least when it comes to those who try to draw a connection between biofuels like corn ethanol and higher food prices.



Appearing Jan. 30, Holman Jenkins's article "Future Farmer" discusses the importance of technology when it comes to meeting future demands for food. Jenkins talked to John Atkin, an executive at biotech giant Syngenta, and got a good perspective on several points. The fact that he concludes with the following sentence shows that he has a good perspective on the issue:



"Bottom line: It's a good time to be an ag-science company, and even a better time to be a farmer."



To Atkin, and Jenkins, there is a world of opportunity in the world. While biotechnology is now the rule rather than the exception when it comes to corn production in the United States, that is not so in other areas (he cites Brazil, Russia and Ukraine) with great potential for higher per-acre yields.



All in all, it's a very positive approach. If only Lester Brown were reading this.



Brown, you may recall, is the original alarmist when it comes to food production. Year after year it seems, he sings the same tune: Food production has peaked and people are going to starve to death.



And year after year, he's been proved wrong.



As the Journal> article points out, the potential for food production is incredible when you take into account human ingenuity and new technology. We're reaching per-acre yields never dreamed of, and there is no way to predict the sort of advances we can make in the years ahead, just as a few decades ago we would never have dreamed of reading this on something called the Internet.



The real challenge in confronting world hunger is not so much the food supply, but the problem of politics keeping food away from the hungry. Another recent news item relates how, each year, North Korea has to ask its far more developed (and far freer) neighbor to the south for assistance, and this year they are reluctant to do so-even though they will be short 1.4 million tons of food this year-because they do not want to have to deal with the new leader of South Korea.



Here in the United States, we do not have hunger on such a vast scale, and we still deal with those who say that demands for ethanol are steering corn away from the food supply and driving up food prices. We must continue to respond as in the past:



There is more than enough corn for food, feed, fuel and fiber ... even a prudent 10 percent surplus this year.



Farm inputs make up a small percentage of the food bill (less that one-fifth). Corn inputs into foods cost just a few cents-even for a box of corn flakes, where a rise in corm prices from $2.40 a bushel to $4 a bushel raises the corn input by just one cent. Food price inflation (the percent change of the consumer price index from year to year) is stable.



Corn has been high before, and will fluctuate. While it may remain high in the course of the next year, there is no telling where it can go.



Fact is, high corn prices have their own set of problems for growers. Land values and farmland rent go up. And corn growers must deal with their own supply problems and increases in the cost of inputs, such as fuel for tractors and fertilizer for the fields. A recent study by Iowa State University Extension found the cost of corn production in that state has gone up by more than 50 percent per acre since 2003 (and more than 40 percent per bushel).



We must laugh at press reports of "Big Corn" and "Big Ethanol" when the real industry with that sort of power and money is the oil industry.



Just recently ExxonMobil announced another round of record profits ... ExxonMobil had a record net income of $40.6 billion in 2007, and Chevron had a profit of $18.7 billion. The largest agriculture or ethanol companies didn't come anywhere near that.



As USA Today put it, Exxon's 2007 revenue, at just over $100 billion, is "greater than the annual GDP of all but just 38 of the world's economies." And according to MSNBC, since January 2002, the price of crude has tripled, leaving oil producers "awash in profits."



When you look at food prices, their increase is much more a function of higher energy costs than higher corn costs ... especially when you consider that some of the higher corn costs are likewise due to energy price increases.



The solution? Corn, to a certain extent. By increasing our use of biofuels such as corn ethanol, we are stepping away from our dependence on Big Oil and its big profits.



Corn is part of the answer much more than it is part of the problem.