JEFFERSON CITY - A House committee will spend the summer studying some of Missouri's thorniest agriculture issues, a list to be headlined by ethanol.
Rep. Charlie Schlottach, R-Owensville, said the committee will discuss ideas for keeping the livestock and biofuels industries sustainable, regulation of large animal feeding operations and other issues affecting Missouri's farms.
Just two years ago, Missouri lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to require gas stations to sell a 10 percent ethanol blend whenever it is no more expensive than traditional gasoline. But ethanol has created a split in the state's farming community.
Several lawmakers who voted for the ethanol requirement sponsored a bill earlier this year to repeal the biofuels mandate, but the bill did not pass. Republican governor candidate Sarah Steelman is campaigning behind a call for lifting the state's ethanol requirement.
The concern driving the ethanol opposition is higher corn and animal feed prices that have many livestock producers worried about whether they will be able to stay in business.
Other critics worry about the precedent, in which state government creates a guaranteed market for a product. And at least one municipality - Kansas City - cited fears that more ethanol use would make it more difficult to meet federal clean air requirements, in its rebuffed request to be excused from the ethanol mandate.
Schlottach said the state should look for ways to make animal agriculture and biofuels each sustainable. He said his committee won't be looking to justify or debunk ethanol - just identify objective facts to help lawmakers in future public policy decisions. But he does acknowledge some worries about using crops as an energy source.
"Agriculture's No. 1 focus needs to be on food and not on energy," he said. "And I think we've taken our eye off the ball."
The Missouri Corn Growers Association, the most vocal defender of the ethanol requirement, said that agriculture should focus on food, but that doesn't mean it must ignore its ability to contribute to energy needs. The commodity groups has touted the ethanol requirement for lowering gas prices and helping corn farmers stay in business.
Ashley McCarty, the group's director of public policy, said Monday that a weak dollar has driven up prices for all commodities. She said the committee's attention to ethanol is indicative of interest in biofuels more than softening support for requiring their use.
"Ethanol and food are topics that touch everyone, and I'm encouraged that our public policy makers are focusing on this," McCarty said.
The interim legislative committee also plans to tackle the dispute over animal feeding operations that has split the state's farmers.
Much of the controversy surrounding the animal feeding operations has focused on who should be allowed to regulate them. More than 30 cities and counties have adopted their own health and zoning ordinances designed to restrict such farms.
According to documents from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which grants permits to many of the farms, 529 animal feeding operations were in the state as of January 2008. Of those, just 20 were of the largest category, known as Class 1A.
The number of animals within a feeding operation varies depending on the species. For example, a Class 1A farm could have more than 3,500 horses; 7,000 cattle; 4,900 dairy cows; 385,000 turkeys; or 17,500 hogs that weigh more than 55 pounds.
Supporters of those ordinances blame the farms for odors, dirty water and falling property values. They argue that animal feeding operations are a matter of local control and the rules that govern them should be decided by those living in the area.
But some of the state's largest farming groups, Gov. Matt Blunt and others contend that the local ordinances have been unreasonable and have balkanized Missouri's rules for farming. They say inconsistent rules across the state and within a county impede agriculture.