There’s a political cartoon making the rounds on editorial pages and websites: A well-fed guy, filling a very big car with ethanol, is shrugging at a small child with a distended belly and empty bowl.

The image is part of the growing “food for fuel” criticism that blames ethanol for food shortages and high prices on basics from rice to wheat. Meanwhile, the ethanol industry has gone on the defensive as well. Corn growers and renewable fuel advocates have been running full-page advertisements and holding press conferences defending ethanol.

Caught in the middle are Minnesota drivers who — depending on whom you talk to — are either friend of the environment or enemy of the hungry.

Minnesota’s decade-long experiment with the fuel makes it ground zero for the ethanol movement. The state has 22 percent of the country’s nearly 1,600 pumps dispensing E85, the highest-blend ethanol fuel, with 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. And “flex-fuel” vehicles, which can run on E85 or gasoline, also have been increasing. An estimated 175,000 flex-fuel vehicles are registered in Minnesota, up about 25 percent from two years ago, according to the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, an ethanol industry supporter.

But many flex-fuel drivers aren’t deciding which fuel to pump based on current events. What sways them is price, according to about two dozen Minnesota drivers and station owners. With gasoline reaching a record high above $3.50 a gallon, and E85 roughly 50 cents less, ethanol often gets the business.

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