Time Not to Squabble

By Kolby Hoagland | November 15, 2013

Earlier this week, the Associated Press ran an article on the ethanol industry's purported environmental impact, which caused quite a stir in the journalism and biofuels world for its amplified assertions and narrow assessment. With the EPA’s imminent release of modified RFS II biofuel mandates for 2014, the timing of AP’s article raised questions on AP’s reasoning behind publishing a prejudiced piece at a climatic time in the biofuel world. Tom Meador from MinnPost wrote a good response to the AP article that points out the erroneous assertions made in their article. Meador states that if preserving prairies and preventing soil loss were the basis for AP’s article, the critique should be directed at industrial agriculture, not corn ethanol alone.

There is little doubt that industrial agriculture leads to greater soil erosion, nutrient runoff, air quality, and I could go on. The environmental cost of industrial agriculture comes at the benefit of cheaper food, fiber, and fuel. Corn is an astounding crop that has allowed agriculture, particularly in the Midwest, to prosper immensely. Eighty years ago, farmers would call a harvest of 40 bushels per acre a “good” yield; today, farmers have come to expect 180 bushels per acre. The advances in corn and have come through breeding, transgenics, and field management, which, as a repercussion, have all played parts in corn putting greater stress on the land in achieving current yields. Modern society has come to rely on current yields of corn for economic income and stability of rural areas and to produce more products and feed more livestock. Corn from U.S. farms has numerous destinations, ethanol plants being one of the many. The AP article states, “that a major ethanol push would raises [corn] prices,” but a recent academic study from Iowa State refutes AP’s claim.  

Industrially grown corn, by no means, is the perfect feedstock for ethanol production. Perennial, cellulosic feedstocks are far better crops as they alleviate the environmental concerns raised in the AP article regarding corn. As opposed to annual crops, like corn and soybean, perennial crops hold soil in place with their larger root structure, require less fertilizer, and reduce nutrient runoff with plant litter and higher soil organic matter. The cellulosic ethanol industry is poised to incur a considerable demand for perennial feedstock that could change the way marginal farmland is cropped.

Without the fuel ethanol industry and its demand for corn, farmers would likely continue to grow annual crops under the same practices that they and generations before them have farmed. The negative impact of agriculture is not solely caused by ethanol. In fact, the ethanol industry with its burgeoning cellulosic ethanol sector provides a path to modify farming that decreases soil erosion and nutrient runoff from farmland, particularly the marginal areas of farms where erosion and runoff are more prevalent. Led by the few cellulosic ethanol plants that are currently coming online, the ethanol industry is adapting (yes, slowly, but it is adapting) to encourage farm practices that provide the ecosystem services needed to positively affect soil loss, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and the other environmental concerns associated with industrial agriculture. When grown on a farm's erodible landscapes, perennial crops can generate revenue for farmers and support an improved environmental footprint than if the marginal land had been tilled for an annual crop.

Rather than squabbling over which of the many culprits is most at fault for the ecological degradations from long enduring agriculture practices, I would hope that the AP parses out the complexity of the U.S. government’s attempts to transition to cleaner burning liquid fuels. The one-sided, finger pointing tone of their article was unprecedented and disappointing. They should leave the strongly biased articles for trade publications.