One agribusiness giant is enthusiastic about using farmland to produce fuel. Another says growing food should be the top priority for those fields.

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Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), by far the country's largest ethanol producer, has taken an aggressive approach to biofuels including ethanol and biodiesel. Cargill Inc. has been more restrained, though it's hardly sitting on the sidelines.

Recent comments by the chairmen of both companies mirror a larger debate taking place on how big of a contribution ethanol can make toward reducing America's need for oil imports, and whether using more corn to make more fuel will lead to higher food prices.

Minnetonka-based Cargill raised the food-versus-fuel issue earlier this month. As he laid out a broad vision of Cargill's business on a changing global playing field, Warren Staley, its chairman and CEO, told a gathering of business writers here that he saw producing food as the most important task for agriculture.

Noting that a number of countries are looking at ethanol and biodiesel to lessen their dependence on Mideast oil, Staley said, "We have to look at the hierarchy of value for agricultural land use: food first, then feed and last fuel."

Staley questioned whether subsidies for using land to produce fuel were good long-term policy and questioned the idea that ethanol could put a big dent in America's dependence on foreign oil. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop were used for ethanol, it would replace only about 20 percent of domestic gasoline consumption, he said.

The next day, the chairman of ADM, G. Allen Andreas, responded by insisting the world has plenty of capacity to grow food.

"There is no consumption versus combustion debate, except for those who really don't recognize the realities of the way this business functions," he said in a conference call with analysts.

Malnutrition and hunger, he said, come from "a lack of infrastructure and a lack of capital" around the world, not from diverting some food to fuel uses.

Neither company made their executives available to elaborate on the comments. Bill Brady, a Cargill spokesman, said one of Staley's main points is that the company sees itself first as a food company.

ADM has seen a sharp run-up in its stock price, partly due to investors looking for ways to get in on the ethanol boom. Its shares reached an all-time high of $46.71 last Thursday. It was trading in the $18-$19 range a year ago. Cargill is privately held. In his speech, Staley said Cargill's sales revenues have increased from $48 billion in 2001 to $71 billion in 2005 and will rise again in the fiscal year that ends May 31st, but did not break out how much of that growth came from ethanol.

Ethanol plays a much bigger role for Decatur, Ill.-based ADM, which claims about one-fourth of U.S. ethanol capacity. About 5 percent of its revenue comes from ethanol, and it's aiming to boost annual production to 1.5 billion gallons, up from its current 1 billion.

And in what's been widely seen as a sign of the importance of ethanol in ADM's future, ADM went to the oil industry for its newest leader. Last month it hired Patricia Woertz, a former executive vice president at Chevron Corp., as its CEO and president.

Steve Suppan, director of research for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis-based think-tank, said ADM has reaped big dividends from lobbying the government over ethanol subsidies and mandates for its increased use in gasoline.

Since Cargill is larger and more diversified, it doesn't need to place as big of a bet on ethanol as ADM, Suppan said. Cargill's non-food businesses include marketing electricity, making and trading steel, and offering financial risk-management products to companies.

"ADM is famous for their willingness to spend lots of money on lobbying," agreed Hank Williams, vice president for fuels with Jim Jordan & Associates, a Houston-based consulting company. "... They may very well have plans to further those efforts and help themselves to larger markets in the future."

But Cargill, despite Staley's comments, is making its own substantial investments in biofuels — $1 billion worth. Currently No. 4 in U.S. ethanol production, it plans new plants that would push its annual capacity to 230 million gallons, which would put it close to the No. 2 spot.

And it has a joint venture with Monsanto Co. that's developing new production technologies. Both Cargill and ADM also have significant biodiesel expansions under way, mostly in Europe.

One reason for Cargill's relative restraint is that it generally views subsidized industries with caution because subsidies can change over time, Brady said.

Congress passed the Energy Policy Act last July that mandates doubling the use of ethanol in gasoline to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012, and President Bush gave the industry a strong endorsement in his State of the Union speech in January.

The U.S. now has 97 ethanol plants with an annual capacity of nearly 4.5 billion gallons, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. About 39 percent of that capacity is farmer-owned. Another 35 plants and nine expansions with a combined capacity of more than 2.2 billion are under construction, the trade group says.

Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, said the food-versus-fuel debate is "a big red herring" because the U.S. "by any measure is an overproducer of food."

"A richer farm sector is going to make us more secure, it's going to make more food available," Kammen said.

But Williams, the consultant, said concerns about food versus fuel are valid. About 15 percent of the U.S. corn crop is currently used for ethanol, and new and expanded plants easily could raise that to 45 to 50 percent, he said.

"Which is probably not sustainable," he added. "We have people to feed, animals to feed, and exports of corn that need to be made."

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