Shooting the messenger
The ethanol industry was in deep hyper-ventilation this week after the Associated Press revealed that — surprise, surprise — making fuel from corn has environmental consequences. Some are good. Some are bad. So the apologists took aim and shot several glancing blows at the messenger. The report, published across the nation, was variously called a fraud, an attack on Iowa farmers, malicious and ill-informed.
They took issues with the numbers. With the interview subjects’ motivation. They said some subjects were, of course, quoted out of context. We can argue that until we are all blue in the face. The nascent ethanol industry is under relentless attack from the oil, food processing and livestock industries. The anti-ethanol crowd spreads lies based on outdated research, spreads fear that the fuel will not work in cars, and that it will deprive food from the mouths of the starving masses (who were starving before the Renewable Fuels Standard). The Big Oil lobby wants to kill ethanol.
So we understand the sense of anxiety.
In balance, ethanol has been a good thing, maybe even a great thing, for Iowa, for corn producers, for rural communities and for national energy security. It also is important to remember that corn ethanol production is merely a stage in renewable energy development. It will at some point become uncompetitive with alternative feedstocks for energy plants — switchgrass, algae, sweet sorghum and a whole host of new methods of production will come online to beat corn in economic and environmental efficiency. That’s what Big Oil worries about most: A new method of making fuel from plants will render fossil fuels obsolete. It will happen. The question is when.
Meantime, we must acknowledge the costs associated with corn ethanol.
We are not agronomists or hydrologists by education. We are not even economists. We know what we see around Northwest Iowa, where more than half the corn crop each year is fed to ethanol plants in Albert City, Fort Dodge, Hartley, Galva and Marcus, to name just a few. Buena Vista County is a net importer of corn.
We are farming into the drainage ditches and the road ditches. We are setting records each spring for soil loss as the climate gets wilder. Since 2004, we have witnessed buffer strips ripped up along Powell Creek feeding Storm Lake. We have read research from Iowa State University detailing how our region’s prairie pothole lakes are filling up faster than ever as we disc right up to their banks. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is growing, thanks to fertilizer running downstream from Iowa and Illinois. The nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers last spring at Des Moines Water Works were the highest recorded.
It only stands to reason that when corn jumps from $2 to $4 to nearly $8 per bushel in a span of five years that grass will come out and corn will go in. It has. We see it every day. And we all know that a ramped-up ethanol industry combined with a growing appetite in China are the two main reasons for higher corn prices. (One reason China is buying so much corn from us is because of its own depleted soil base that is delivering lower yields every year.)
Rather than condemning the AP for confirming the obvious, we should work harder at keeping our soil in place.
We can grow 200-bushel corn without destroying Pickerel Lake, Lizard Lake or Storm Lake. We can keep our soil in place by leaving endrows in grass in each field. We used to do this when participation in the federal farm program required a 10% set-aside from production. When we ditched the set-aside, we saw soil erosion rates explode. It is expressed in the rates that lakes are filling in. Climate change exaggerates it.
These are not the radicals making these claims. It is the limnology lab at Iowa State. The agronomy department at Iowa State. The Extension Service. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State. The Iowa Secretary of Agriculture acknowledges that we must reduce soil erosion, and set aside $2.8 million toward that end this year.
Ethanol also has greatly depleted the Jordan Aquifer because it uses so much water in production. There is a legitimate scientific argument about whether corn ethanol is a net plus to the environment in lower carbon emissions or a detriment because of its impact on soil and water.
We like $4 corn better than $2 corn. We like domestic renewable energy better than oil from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia or Iraq. So we think corn ethanol is a good thing, if we can keep improving it.
We can stick our heads in the mud and think that we can sustain Iowa’s full-throated production model. That assures us that our grandchildren will not enjoy the same bounty from Iowa’s natural resources that we have. Or, we can ramp up more research at Iowa State to figure out how to make ethanol in myriad ways while conserving our precious topsoil. A lot of practical research is available to production agriculture now. Time would be better spent looking into fall/winter cover crops than trying vainly to discredit the AP for honest work.