The Real Dirt on Ethanol

Flashback 1948: Harry Truman stops in Iowa to campaign at the National Plowing Contest in Dexter to a crowd of 100,000 at the beginnings of the soil conservation movement. In 1939 Iowa’s Governor successfully passed model legislation drafted by FDR’s administration to adopt state soil conservation districts. By 1952 all counties had a soil and water conservation district.

Fast Forward to today where this banner greats you on our current Governor’s unofficial campaign site:


Because politics is just a game now. Problems schmoblems.

The Associated Press conducted a five month investigation on how the increased federal mandates for blending ethanol are harming the environment. They made a pretty clear case that corn-based ethanol isn’t a green fuel, which isn’t really news. Academics knew this prior to 2005 and tried to sound the alarm , but the rebuttal was that in time we would transition to cellulosic based ethanol from perennial crops and to newer, cleaner fuels beyond ethanol like biobutanol. The Department of Energy mapped out a vision for land use change in 2005 called the Billion Ton Report where the U.S. would replace 30% of petroleum use with biofuels largely from perennial bioenergy crops. Then the economy tanked.

How realistic was that whole idea? Time will tell, but so far not very. And why was the AP talking to farmers in south central Iowa when most of the CRP ground being plowed is in the Dakotas? That’s what I’d like to know. Local/state reporters could have done a series on this issue in Iowa and presented it just as well. Maybe less conspiracy-ish too!

However, the story didn’t distinguish whether the volume of nitrates flowing through our watersheds has increased or whether the concentration of nitrates has increased. It’s just nitrate “levels”. We’ve made our high nitrate volumes worse but also had serious drought and heat the past three summers, which makes the nitrates more concentrated with less water flow. And not mentioning the effects of drought leaves climate change out of the picture when it’s obviously already here.

But back to the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS)! Of course, this is bad news for Iowa farmers because for the first time in a long time they were actually making money. Land prices are rising which means they can upgrade their machinery. But the big goal with the RFS was to lead us into an advanced biofuel economy at least partly based on perennial crops. Scaling up corn-based ethanol is not sustainable. And we’re gambling with our food supply.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but crop production is becoming more volatile which means food prices are more volatile. (remember this??? Drought in Russia -> wheat crop fails -> riots in the Middle East) Due to the drought of 2012 the US frozen corn storage stocks hit their annual low a full  month earlier than normal. We can’t have multiple seasons of that. Fortunately the decades of research and investment that went into making drought tolerant corn have worked. Not only are drought tolerant lines now available (and for what it’s worth of the three companies with those lines only Monsanto’s is transgenic if that’s your thing) but most commercial hybrids are screened for drought tolerance.

Corn: Cold Storage Stocks by Month and Year, US

Dropping the RFS standard by 1.4 billion gallons amounts to cutting back on 3.5% of our corn acreage in the U.S. (or 4.5% based on 2012’s bad yields). That’s enough to skew corn futures but it’s not a long term crisis. And dare I say, it’s the right thing to do because the AP had a point. It’s not Big Oil. It’s big soil.

Iowans for a Future that Doesn't Suck