Proponents of ethanol have a four-letter response for critics of biofuel:
Monte Shaw, executive director of the Des Moines-based Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, is among a number of vocal ethanol defenders leading the counter-charge.
Critics say ethanol is more damaging to the environment than politicians, including President Barack Obama, have let on. They say farmers rushing to get in on the rush to ethanol, have wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and contaminated water supplies.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) pay U.S. producers to retire cropland in order to protect soil, improve water quality, enhance wildlife habitat, and otherwise safeguard environmental quality, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency said projected land retirement payments of $13 billion between 2008 and 2012 would represent about half of USDA conservation program spending.
USDA notes that while CRP acreage was slated to get smaller, acreage in restored wetlands and other “high-value practices” is likely to increase. A growing portion of CRP acres, over 4 million acres in 2008, are enrolled via “continuous” signups that target more environmentally sensitive lands, such as streamside buffers, farmable wetlands, prairie potholes, and upland bird habitat. The 2008 farm act increased the WRP acreage cap from 2.275 to 3.041 million acres—just over 1 million acres more than the current cap.
So, the claims that ethanol is responsible for any shrinkage in CRP land is wrong, Shaw said.
“This is inaccurate rhetoric,” Shaw said, responding to an Associated Press story that claimed ethanol had caused 5 million acres of land to be removed from the CRP since Obama took office in 2009.
“In fact, the 2008 Farm Bill removed funding for roughly 7 million acres of CRP land,” Shaw said. “Based on this law, the number of enrolled acres has decreased to fit within the program’s new, smaller budget. It is legally impossible to get back to pre-2008 levels of CRP enrollment. This has nothing to do with ethanol.”
LAND USE DOWN
Shaw said the growth in renewable fuels has not affected Iowa land use, noting that data from USDA backs up his assertion.
Shaw said Iowa has lost, not gained, cropland during both the “ethanol era” that dates to 1980 and the “modern ethanol boom” that began in 2001.
“Fact: Iowa farmers planted 14 million acres in corn in 1980…and 2013,” Shaw said.
He said Iowa farmers have planted more than 1 million fewer acres of all crops during since 1980 and fewer acres during the “modern ethanol era.”
Indeed, farmers are growing more using less land than they used in an earlier era, Shaw said.
“In 1980, farmers averaged a yield of 91 bushels of corn per acre and produced a crop of 6.6 billion bushels; in 2009, just a generation later, farmers produced an average yield of 164.7 bushels per acre and harvested 13.1 billion bushels.”
Advances in seed genetics, such as the development of drought-resistant varieties, have contributed to the higher yields, said Chuck Hofland, general manager of Siouxland Ethanol, a 50 million gallon per year plant near Jackson, Neb.
Ethanol critics have cited higher corn prices – they peaked at around $7 a year ago – for having created a stampede of growers looking to produce more of the crop.
The Renewable Fuels Association counters that the current price is just over $4 -- and exactly where it was when President Bush signed the RFS law in 2007.
Dave Calderwood, who grows corn on about 800 acres near Traer, dismisses the theory that ethanol pushes up corn prices.
“I blame it more on Mother Nature and the growing conditions,” Calderwood said, citing drought conditions last year as a price prop. “There’s been a couple of drought years and a shortage of corn. This year, we’re going to have an abundance of corn, and they’re looking at $4. So, to blame the higher price and more corn acres on ethanol is silly. It’s more on the growing conditions and production over the last two years. Ethanol has been moving more corn, but we have more corn than in other years.”
Calderwood, who also has a pork operation, said he has increased his corn production, but the extra is going into feed for his pigs.
About 20 percent of Calderwood’s corn production goes to ethanol, but even that has a benefit to his pigs, he said.
“I love feeding the byproduct DDG (dried distillers grain) to my hogs,” he said. “They like it, and it’s good for them.”
The virtual doubling of the U.S. corn crop was accomplished with just 3 percent more corn acres in 2009 than were planted in 1980, Shaw said, adding that per-acre yields are expected to increase by another 29 percent, to 189 bushels, by 2020.
Shaw also said there were more CRP acres in 2012 than in 2000, the year before Iowa’s first dry mill ethanol plant began operations. He also said Iowa planted acreage, plus CRP land, has varied by only 1.5 percent during the modern ethanol era.
“CRP acreage in targeted conservation programs increased since 2007,” Shaw said, citing, as an example, WRP acreage increased by 50,000 since then.
In short, Shaw said, ethanol and the federally mandated Renewable Fuel Standard, which increases the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into transportation fuel from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022, are not to blame for any change in land use in Iowa.
“To the extent it may be happening, my guess is that farmers are needing to replace acres lost to urban sprawl,” Shaw said.
WATER SUPPLIES PROTECTED
Ethanol critics say excess corn production has led to fertilizer-laden runoff, which, they say, harms the water supply. Heavy rainfall this year – the Reuters wire service quoted Iowa State University climatologist Harry Hillaker May 31 as saying the state received a record of nearly 18 inches of precipitation in March-May – underlined the problem, according to ethanol opponents.
Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizers, some of which made its way into drinking water and polluted rivers.
Indeed, the Des Moines Water Works reported in July that two of the city’s primary water sources – the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers – had record-setting nitrate concentrations in the early summer months. But, the utility said it implemented a number of strategies – including activating its Nitrate Removal Facility – that kept drinking water safe for its customers.
Shaw points out that the Iowa Corn Growers, Iowa Soybean Association and Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance all are working to implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, with a goal of cutting relevant pollutants by 45 percent, “so the next time this perfect storm comes, runoff will be significantly reduced.”
Shaw pointed out that the increase in corn volume also was a factor in the nitrate problem.
“The 2010 corn crop was 12 percent larger than the 2005 crop, so it stands to reason that slightly more nitrogen was used in 2010,” Shaw said. “Still, USDA data shows that the amount of nitrogen applied in 2010 was down from 2007 and lower than nitrogen use in the early and mid-1980s.”
Shaw cited USDA data that showed that, in 2010, corn farmers used 1 percent less nitrogen, 10 percent less phosphate and 28 percent less potash than in 1985.
“Yet, the 2010 corn crop was 40 percent larger than the 1985 crop,” he said. “The nitrogen required to produce a bushel of corn has fallen 43 percent since 1980, while phosphate requirements are down 58 percent and potash requirements are down 64 percent.”
Calderwood said growers are prudent about fertilizer applications.
“We use a lot of hog manure in our operation, since we have it,” he said.
Fertilizer is applied as sparingly as possible, Calderwood said.
“We’ve been using it more efficiently, knowing where what part of the field yields good and being able to apply fertilizer where it’s needed,” he said. “We’re not using any more fertilizer; we’re just using it more efficiently.”
That, combined with new seed technology, is creating higher yields, Calderwood said.
“We’re raising more bushels off that acre with more efficient hybrids and more efficient placement of that nitrogen,” he said.
FOCUS ON LESS FERTILIZER
In August, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey announced that an additional $1 million in cost share funds had been made available to help farmers implement nutrient reduction practices.
“As for the environmental impact of farming, we have a great story to tell and it is unfortunate some try and pick and choose information that is presented to give a false impression,” Northey said when asked about the criticisms of ethanol. “Iowa has been leading the way on implementing our state’s water quality initiative and farmers have been extremely engaged and looking for new tools to help them better-manage nutrients on their farm.”
Northey said there are a “record number” of acres enrolled in either state or federal conservation programs.
“The growth of the ethanol industry has been a tremendous success story that has benefited consumers, farmers, the economy and the environment,” Northey said.
Ethanol production creates other negative environmental impacts, as well, according to critics, who point out that ethanol production facilities require the burning of natural gas and coal.
“And gasoline is produced from Canadian tar sands by an emissions free magic wand?” Shaw said. “Approximately 90 percent of ethanol plants operating today use natural gas as a power source, while just 10 percent use coal. Ethanol plants have reduced thermal energy and electricity use by 36 percent and 38 percent, respectively, since 1995.”
Shaw cited a recent study from Argonne National Laboratory that reported corn ethanol production cuts greenhouse-gas emissions by 34 percent compared to gasoline.
“This includes all emissions related to fertilizer/chemical production and use on the farm, diesel fuel use on the farm, transportation of the corn, energy use by the ethanol plant, transportation of the ethanol to market, and even hypothetical land use change emissions,” Shaw said. “This peer-reviewed, published work was shared with the AP reporters, who chose to ignore it.”
Technology is making the process even cleaner, said Jake Reint, spokesman for Wichita, Kan.-based biofuels company Flint Hills Resources, which operates four ethanol plants in Iowa – Fairbank, Iowa Falls, Menlo and Shell Rock.
“There is no perfect energy source but the industry is making improvements and corn ethanol in particular has the potential to thrive in a competitive marketplace,” Reint said. “A competitive marketplace requires innovation, and that ultimately leads to more efficient practices, and that’s good for consumers and the environment.”
Ethanol criticism is nothing new, Shaw said.
“The anti-corn crowd has been alive and well since the 1970s,” he said. “They refuse to recognize the environmental advances in corn and ethanol production while ignoring the environmental costs associated with unconventional crude oil production.”
Ethanol is now central to the U.S. energy portfolio, and that won’t change, Shaw said.
“If the US stopped producing ethanol, crude oil imports would rise, gasoline prices would rise, auto tailpipe emissions would rise, and greenhouse gas emissions would rise,” he said. “Meanwhile, rural income would go down, energy security would go down, world protein supplies would go down, and air quality would go down. It’s pretty clear which path is the right one.”
"Would we rather send that money over to a foreign county?" Hofland added. "I guess that's what everybody has to decide."
Journal business editor Dave Dreeszen contributed to this story.