When I talk about farming and food with my friends and family, I try my best to provide the most correct information that I can from current, valid sources. I don’t lie, and I try not to make assumptions. It doesn’t do anyone a bit of good. For instance, have you heard that the harvestman (Daddy-long-legs) is the most poisonous spider in the world? This is one of the most perpetuated myths of all time, origin unknown. Who knows how many of these innocent little creatures have been killed because people believe what they have been told. Unfortunately, ethanol has become the modern-day harvestman.
The Associated Press (AP) today released a story about the “dirty” side of ethanol, claiming it is encouraging farmers to plow up sensitive ecosystems, polluting our waters, and causing more greenhouse gas emissions than it saves. Here are a number of reasons we say their statements are false:
AP claim: “Five million acres of land set aside for conservation…have vanished on Obama’s watch. Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.”
First, farmers are not filling in wetlands. Acreage enrolled in USDA’s Wetlands Reserve Program hit a record 2.65 million acres in 2012. That land is enrolled permanently, or for a period of 30 years. Farmers can’t just wake up one day and decide to fill it in.
Second, acres in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program have declined, but a big reason for the decline is because the cap on CRP acres fell from 39 to 32 million acres as a result of the 2008 farm bill. CRP lands were always intended to remain available to be farmed if market conditions warranted. It is perfectly reasonable to grow crops on good farmland, and save the more highly erodible land and fields near waterways for CRP enrollment.
Third, those “pristine prairies” remain pristine. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, no new grassland has been converted to cropland since 2005. Most native grasslands are also protected under “sodbuster” and “swampbuster” provisions of the farm bill.
Finally, farmers participate in a variety of conservation efforts, such as enrolling acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program, developing mandatory agricultural water quality plans, and adjusting farming practices to conserve soil, energy and nutrients.
AP Claim: “Historically, the overwhelmingly majority of corn in the United States has been turned into livestock feed. But in 2010, for the first time, fuel was the No. 1 use for corn in America. That’s been true every year since.”
Livestock feed remains the No. 1 market for U.S. corn. Period.
What the AP authors aren’t telling you is that for every 56-pound bushel of corn that is made into 2.8 gallons of ethanol, 17 pounds — about one-third — is returned as a high-protein animal feed. This is what corn farmers mean when they talk about growing food, fiber, and fuel. Enough corn is grown to support all three (with plenty left over to export to other countries). When corn co-products are factored in livestock feed — not fuel — remains the top use for corn by a wide margin.
AP Claim: “Before the government ethanol mandate, the Conservation Reserve Program grew every year for nearly a decade.”
Actually, it didn’t. CRP enrollment fell in five consecutive years from 1994-99.
AP Claim: “But using government satellite data — the best tool available — the AP identified a conservative estimate of 1.2 million acres of virgin land in Nebraska and the Dakotas alone that have been converted to fields of corn and soybeans since 2006, the last year before the ethanol mandate was passed.”
The reporters don’t bother to tell us what “government satellite data” was used or how “virgin land” was identified. Government agencies like USDA don’t use satellite data often for regulatory or enforcement purposes because it contains a high degree of error.
If you want to know what’s happening on cropland in Nebraska and the Dakotas, referring to a satellite hovering around in outer space isn’t the best method. Instead, you want to use on-the-ground data.
If the AP reporters paid attention to what was happening on the ground, they would have learned that yes, 2013 corn acres in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas are up over 9 million compared to the five-year average from 2000-04. However, acres dedicated to other crops fell by more than 11 million — meaning the increases in corn acres was more than offset by the decrease in other crops, not from planting corn on “virgin land.”
AP Claim: “Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. More recent data isn’t available from the Agriculture Department, but because of the huge increase in corn planting, even conservative projections by the AP suggest another billion-pound fertilizer increase on corn farms since then.”
USDA data shows that nitrogen applied in 2010 was down compared to nitrogen use in the early and mid-1980s, even though today’s corn crop is 40 percent larger than it was in 1985. The nitrogen required to grow a bushel of corn is down 43 percent since 1980. And by the way, yields are way up. Farmers are growing more corn on less land and drastically increasing the efficiency of fertilizer application.
AP Claim: “Corn demands fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. What’s worse, ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.”
According to Argonne National Laboratory, when all greenhouse gas emissions related to growing corn and processing it into ethanol are tallied, average corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent compared to gasoline. Since 1995, ethanol plants have cut electricity use by 38 percent and thermal energy use by 36 percent.
There are many other peer-reviewed studies that reach similar conclusions about ethanol’s impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, the AP ignored all of them.
We could continue.
We are not going to speculate, but it is interesting that this story has come at a time when Big Oil is spending big bucks and going all out to try and get Congress to repeal the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), or convince the EPA to make significant changes to the RFS.
The AP isn’t the first news outlet to fall victim to Big Oil’s deep pockets and powerful influence. Unfortunately, it also won’t be the last.
Corn farmers and ethanol supporters have no problem with media outlets taking a critical look at farming practices and the ethanol process. In Kentucky, we work very hard to help reporters identify sources on a regular basis, even when we know the story in all likelihood may cast agriculture in a negative light.
But when a story like this one is written — one that parrots talking points from the oil industry and regurgitates dated myths and blatantly wrong “facts” from anti-everything environmental groups — we feel it’s our responsibility to set the record straight as soon as possible.
Ethanol has helped clean up our air, reduced our dependence on foreign oil, created jobs and rejuvenated the agriculture and rural economy. We have one corn-based ethanol plant in our commonwealth using local corn, which is providing a substantial return to the community of Hopkinsville and the surrounding area, well beyond the pocket books of farmers and ethanol distillers.
Many thanks need to be given to the National Corn Growers Association, Minnesota Corn Growers Association and Fuels America for helping us check the facts.